Have you seen this one on the Internet? It has been doing the rounds on sundry social media and concerns the ‘heroic’ efforts of a blogger who styles herself ‘food babe’ to get a flour improving agent removed from Subway products. Despite the fact food babe is talking Utter, Utter Bollocks (μ²B) Subway have pulled the ingredient. One can’t blame them for their reaction to this unwarranted PR nightmare, but what’s the science?

E927 (aka azo-bisformanide or azodicarbonamide) is a bleaching agent in flour and also helps breads rise as well as modulating their texture. It’s also used industrially as a ‘blowing agent’. (Gotta love that phrase but it’s just a term for a class of substance that forms a gas when it decomposes, usually by heating, sometimes under catalysis). This sort of chemical is very handy when extruding or processing plastics, for example. Anyway, food babe’s campaign seems to be based the fact that E927 is used in the manufacture of non-food items, it can provoke asthma and it causes cancer. Apparently it’s dangerous in food because:

“The World Health Organization has linked it to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma. The UK HSE has recognized azodicarbonamide as a potential cause of asthma.”

Yes, but only in factory workers exposed to processes using azodicarbonamide as a raw material who might inhale it. This has zero relevance to people making or eating bread.

“Not only is this ingredient banned in Europe and Australia, but you also get fined 450,000 dollars if you get caught using it in Singapore and can serve 15 years in prison.”

The HSE class azodicarbonamide as a human asthmagen (as well as flour, soy, tea, cows’ wee – it’s a long list) and there is uncertainty regarding the level of risk it represents when used as a raw material in industrial processes – which is why it is controlled in those situations. This is not relevant to its use in food and the HSE advice is not based on any risk in food. Toxicity is all about the dose.

She also refers to an accident where apparently a tanker of the stuff crashed and people exposed to it suffered eye and skin irritation. Of course they did! Expose anyone to a massive amount of any chemical and it can be toxic because toxicity is all about the dose. Water and oxygen are both toxic too – depending on the dose.

And – of course – azodicarbonamide causes cancer! She is referring to one of its breakdown products but a very basic search of the data would have told her:

“Carcinogenicity studies… are of limited quality, show a questionable weak effect in mice at high doses, which are not relevant to human exposure at trace levels, and show no effect in the rat.”

But people like this are immune to data, quite possibly because their level of scientific literacy is below that of my six year-old. And it’s not just ill-informed bloggers; this sort of false association is a staple of the Daily Mail ‘health’ pages: the usual format is ‘x has been shown to cause tumours in mice exposed to massive amounts of it (that bear no relation to real-life ingestion levels), it’s present in miniscule amounts in product y, ergo y causes cancer in humans’.

So, this is utterly misinformed hysteria, fuelled by someone with no mention of any qualifications on her website and with zero understanding of basic science. She does have form for this – someone sent me one of her rants where she describes the influenza vaccine as “a bunch of toxic chemicals and additives that lead to several types of Cancers and Alzheimer disease over time”. I don’t think I have ever seen so many basic errors and misunderstandings about science in a single article before or since. But then I haven’t read all her stuff yet.

So, E927. The new aspartame. Until the next one comes along…