Azodicarbonamide (ADA) is a big word for a common additive. The substance is a component of gym mats, shoe soles, and plastic foaming. In addition to these industrial uses, ADA finds its way into commercially-prepared foodstuffs. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the inclusion of ADA in edible products up to 45 parts per million, there are several possible health risks.

assortment of bread products in a bakery

What Is Azodicarbonamide?

ADA is an odorless, orange, synthetic powder. When in the mix with another substance, it gives off little bubbles. This process increases the product’s strength and softness and make it lightweight. These capabilities make the chemical a natural for items in which these qualities are a plus.

Foods Containing Azordicarbonamide

Azordicarbonamide was first under the spotlight as a food additive in 1956. Then, a New Jersey drug manufacturer made the discovery that the chemical could improve bread dough’s elasticity, strength and whiteness. The result was a fluffier, more pleasing-to-the-eye final product. Six years later, the FDA gave ADA its stamp of approval.

ADA is an ingredient in most common breads, including frozen pizza, muffins, tortillas, bagels, hot dog buns, and cereal. The chemical appears on ingredient labels of 500 brands, among them Wonder, Pillsbury, Smucker’s, and Little Debbie. These types of bakery products available in many restaurants may also contain the additive.

In 2014 now, the use of ADA in food service establishments gained attention again. This time, blogger Vani Hari (noting that Europe and Australia do not permit its use in foodstuffs) made viral a petition on her blog requesting Subway to remove the substance from its bakery products.

man handling dough to make bread

Dangers of Azodicarbonamide

While ADA is a beneficial ingredient in exercise mats and other items requiring flexibility and softness, there are multiple hazards in consuming the substance.

1. According to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, ADA, when under heat, breaks down into small amounts of semicarbazide, a known carcinogen and tumor-causing agent. The proportion of this chemical is thus greater in the resulting bakery goods than in flour (and in the outside of the product). Since bread products are of course made through heat exposure, the risk of consuming such foodstuffs should give consumers pause.

2. David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, states that:

ADA is just one example of an American food supply awash in chemical additives that can be mixed into foods with little oversight or safety review.

This statement follows a study the scientist co-wrote that traced the substance to neurological problems, changes in cell structure, allergies, tumors, and other disorders. While high doses of ADA were the case with this study, the fact that Australia and the European Union ban the chemical from food indicates a significant risk is the case.
3. The Food and Drug Administration’s approval of ADA as a food ingredient comes with a caveat: only 45 parts per million are safe. What should this tell us? That the FDA is erring, saying that ADA is not ok in more than miniscule amounts.

Are There Benefits for Azodicarbonamide?

As we mention above, the addition of this chemical results in fluffier, more attractive, whiter bread and other grain products. However, ADA possesses no nutritional benefits or other perks beyond the aesthetic. Since health hazards often come to light only after years or decades of use. Here you remember our friends, BPA and MSG. Thus, eliminating this potential troublemaker can reduce the likelihood of serious diseases down the road.

Since manufacturers need (according to law) to list azodicarbonamide and all other additives, a few moments spent reading a product’s label is time well spent. However, even the staunchest label readers find it difficult to go through a long, often confusing, list of ingredients.

The solution? Purchase bakery products containing fewer ingredients, especially those made with whole grains. Better yet, become a baker. Cookbooks and web sites are full of easy-to-follow, nutritious, and delicious recipes. And do not underestimate the power of the pocketbook and political action. Speak up to food service establishments about the presence of ADA in their bread products. You can also speak to your representative in the House – your voice matters.

man handling dough to make bread

Summing It Up

Azodicarbonamide definitely has its place in your exercise mat and flip-flops. However, the real and potential health dangers to people consuming the additive – without any offsetting benefits – are alarming. They should act as a warning sign to government agencies, elected officials, food manufacturers, restaurants, and to the public. Money spent on research, regulation, and the development of problem-free foodstuffs can mean fewer dollars invested in health care costs incurred by victims of chronic diseases. The choices we make now will have effects on us and future generations.

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