NEW YORK—After a snack at a McDonald’s restaurant on 10th Avenue, Stanley Glover seemed a little surprised upon learning that a chemical in his hamburger is also used to make yoga mats.
The chemical, azodicarbonamide, is an elasticity agent used in shoe soles and yoga mats. But it is also known as the food additive E927, used to bleach flour, make dough easier to process, and make bread last longer.
The Subway restaurant chain announced last week that it is in the process of removing the compound from its bread. On Sunday, Sen. Chuck Schumer called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban E927 from food altogether.
Subway’s announcement came after a popular food blogger, Vani Hari of foodbabe.com, launched a petition asking the sandwich chain to stop using the ingredient. A representative for Subway said the change was underway before the petition was launched, but did not immediately provide details on when it started or when it would be complete.
Hari pointed out the substance is potentially harmful, noting one can be put in jail for 15 years in Singapore for putting it in food. Her petition garnered over 85,000 signatures since its launch on Feb 4.
In Australia and most of the European Union E927 is not allowed in food. In 1999, a group of experts presented a report to the World Health Organization (WHO) citing azodicarbonamide as a cause of asthma among workers who manufacture and process the compound.
In the United States, the compound can be used in food, but is limited to 2.05 grams (0.07 ounces) per 100 pounds of flour.
McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, and many other fast-food chains and bread producers use E927 in their products, said Schumer.
Two chemicals resulting from baking the E927 are carcinogenic, according the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy organization. Both of the substances, semicarbazide and urethane, pose “negligible” or “little risk” to humans, even if E927 is used in the maximum lawful amount. Yet, since many bakers get by without the additive, CSPI suggested that the FDA ban it.
“Cancer’s on the rise. We’re never quite sure why. Why not be safe, rather than sorry?” Schumer said. He wrote an open letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg asking her to ban the substance from food.
When azodicarbonamide is ingested, most of it breaks down to another compound called biurea. In 1965 an experiment cited in the WHO report was done on rats and dogs fed for a year with food containing 5 and 10 percent of biurea. Rats showed almost no bad reactions, but most of the dogs died within a year.
Since the dogs were of “uncertain and variable origin,” the report dismissed the experiment.
Schumer offered the reporters a McDonald’s hamburger, a prop for his press conference, but it took a while for someone to accept it. In the end, a dog named Walter, who happened to pass by, ate it.
MJ Fox, the dog’s owner, said she wasn’t particularly concerned about Walter eating fast food.
Glover wasn’t concerned either—as a dance student he usually watches his diet and doesn’t eat fast food often.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.