It’s Hard to Say How Many Yoga Mats I’ve Eaten Today

Azodicarbonamide, or ADA, is a chemical agent found in yoga mats and flip-flops. It's also found in sandwich chain bread and over 500 other food products. I spoke with scientists to see how many chemical-laced hoagies I can consume before dying.

Apr 8 2014, 6:47pm

Original photo via Flickr user Oleg Klementiev

Subway's motto "Eat Fresh" is about as accurate as Lil' Kim claiming to have gone platinum on PayPal. At least that's the assumption once the internet erupted in February upon discovering that the sandwich chain had been using a chemical called azodicarbonamide, or ADA, in its bread. The agent is the same chemical found in yoga mats and flip-flops and serves a similar function in Subway's bread as it does in your sandals. It gives all of the aforementioned a 'fluffy, spongy' feel, making it more pliable. Those are certainly not adjectives that should be used to describe food, but once reports circulated at the beginning of this year that Subway has agreed to pull this chemical from their breads, they inevitably entered the conversation. For the bread specifically, ADA has the double duty of bleaching the flour and assisting in getting the yeast to work overtime (a.k.a. rising faster) so that the texture remains soft. And when you're mass producing bread products and using it for fast food like Subway does, it allows your bread to bake like it's in a microwave. Now it's the hot new buzz phrase ("yoga mat chemical") and has everyone totally freaking out about vowing to never again eat sandwiches again—until they forget the issue exists. I could care less about the presence of ADA in the realm of my universe, but it certainly won't help anyone's kidneys or lungs, let alone one's life expectancy.

I'll admit, I used to eat at Subway. I even used to eat Subway while riding the subway. And now I'm disgusted at the idea that I've been eating a Bikram class full of yoga mats when I thought I was eating fresh or whatever. So I had to wonder, exactly how many yoga mats was I actually eating? Considering the number of foods ADA is found in, let's just say I invented a new yoga pose: downward mouth. There's a lot to learn about this chemical, so I interviewed a former Subway employee who knew nothing about ADA (since they don't actually create the bread). He did offer a cute anecdote about how his manager instructed him to flick mold spores off the deli meat and still use them for sandwiches. Awesome. But one thing is evident: In the case of our new friend azodicarbonamide, Subway isn't the only guilty party.

The Environmental Working Group released a list, displaying 500 different foods/brands that all contain ADA. It's bread. It's also pasta. Then NBC News turned around and found that McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Arby's, Jack In The Box, Dunkin' Donuts, and Chick-fil-A use it too. Starbucks is phasing ADA out, but it was also in there.

The pursuit for discovering azodicarbonamide's harmful effects was complex. A chemical engineer, a scientist, and a food industry professional were all a part of my "research team" and they all revealed one gigantic red flag: ADA is banned in places outside of the US, including the EU and Australia, though the FDA decided the chemical was safe to eat back in 1962. Singapore, in particular, abhors the chemical, imposing fines and even jail time (up to 15 years) for its usage.

There's also the case that ADA is causing all of these rampant gluten allergies, which would explain a lot since there was no such thing as a "gluten allergy" like 25 years ago.

The chemical engineer—who chose to not be named, but LinkedIn says he's from Kolmar Labs—advised that ADA in its purest form is most lethal when ingested. However, you can have skin-to-skin contact with it in any state (the same reason why you don't die from it during yoga), though factory workers around the chemical have complained of skin problems. After continued exposure internally, you can experience kidney failure, asthma, and other respiratory issues. On top of all that, a recent article states when you bake bread with the magical ADA, two carcinogens (yes, cancer) are emitted: urethane and semicarbazide. They've only killed lab rats though, so I guess that's fine.

My scientist explained that the GRAS (or Generally Recognized As Safe) status of the chemical by the FDA is a cause of concern, but not as much as the people working in the plants who can breathe the raw chemical in while it's being injected into our bread. She directed me to a series of sites, which in turn directed me to another series of sites with a bunch of scientific jargon. On the FDA site, it states in Title 21, Chapter I, Subchapter B that ADA is safe as "an aging and bleaching ingredient in cereal flour in an amount not to exceed 2.05 grams per 100 pounds of flour (0.0045 percent; 45 parts per million)" and as "a dough conditioner in bread baking in a total amount not to exceed 0.0045 percent (45 parts per million) by weight of the flour used." The rub in those stats—like many chemicals or additives declared "safe"—suggests that there is a limit to which they no longer are safe to consume. The FDA site also helpfully states in the FAQ section that ADA is not necessary to bake bread (duh). And the Material Safety Data Sheet for ADA doesn't say much, only that it's flammable and if you breathe it in, you should seek fresh air pretty quickly. Another document revealed that at one time Europe used the chemical in its flour, but it's no longer allowed. The consensus from both the chemical engineer and scientist was that the chemical is suspicious, but won't kill you.

But it was Berthsy Ayide, CEO and Executive of The Kitchen Sink, who led me to interpreting a totally different take on azodicarbonamide. Considering it's in food other than Subway, what if you're eating it three times a day? "When the FDA regulates an ingredient or additive, I don't believe they take aggregate consumer consumption into account," Berthsy explained. "So for someone who eats many of the hundreds of food items that list ADA as an ingredient, they should definitely worry about long term health effects." Berthsy added that the chemicals added to our breads are time machines. "Historically, bakers would allow flour to age for several months to create a lot of the qualities we now use chemicals to reproduce," she explains. There's also the case that ADA is causing all of these rampant gluten allergies, which would explain a lot since there was no such thing as a "gluten allergy" like 25 years ago.

As for me, I haven't eaten Subway since I learned about ADA. I also haven't eaten a single food off that gigantic list of other motherfuckers who think I want to chew on foam instead of actual bread. It's a personal choice, really. Now, if ADA was found in wine and cheese, that would be a different story. But until the "yoga foam" is completely removed from certain bread products in the USA, you won't catch me eating them. I'm not about to die over a slice of bread.