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Bleaching Agents Used in Flour and Their Health Hazards

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WHY ARE BLEACHING AGENTS USED?

We all love flour for the taste, texture, and consistency it gives to cooked and baked products. However, freshly milled flour or green flour has a yellow color as it contains xanthophyll, a pigment naturally found in wheat. Also, green flour might not perform well in baking or give baked products the desired texture, volume, and consistency. So it is often made to undergo a process called aging or maturing that seems to improve its water absorption and baking qualities. With aging, freshly milled flour turns whiter in color and this process also strengthens glutens and proteins in it.

Natural aging happens when milled flour comes into contact with oxygen in the air, but this process takes about two months or more. To make flour white and consumable almost immediately after milling, commercial manufacturers treat it with certain chemical additives which are also known as bleaching agents.

WHICH ARE THE COMMONLY USED BLEACHING AGENTS IN THE FOOD INDUSTRY?

The agents used for bleaching flour might vary from country to country as each country has its own list of permitted and banned additives as per their food laws and regulations. Benzoyl peroxide, calcium peroxide, chlorine gas, and chlorine dioxide are some of the most commonly used bleaching agents across the world. Others include azodicarbonamide, nitrogen dioxide, and potassium bromate. Of these, calcium and benzoyl peroxides are just whitening agents and don’t have an impact on the aging process. Once added, such bleaching agents whiten the flour in about 48 hours.

WHAT IS THE WAY FORWARD?

The agents used for bleaching flour might vary from country to country as each country has its own list of permitted and banned additives as per their food laws and regulations. Benzoyl peroxide, calcium peroxide, chlorine gas, and chlorine dioxide are some of the most commonly used bleaching agents across the world. Others include azodicarbonamide, nitrogen dioxide, and potassium bromate. Of these, calcium and benzoyl peroxides are just whitening agents and don’t have an impact on the aging process. Once added, such bleaching agents whiten the flour in about 48 hours.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN FLOUR IS TREATED WITH BLEACHING AGENTS?

The process of treating flour with chemical agents is called bleaching and it serves two purposes – maturing and whitening. Bleaching agents remove xanthophyll, the yellow pigment naturally found in milled grains. As a result, the flour turns whiter in color and attains a soft, fine texture. That’s not all however – the bleaching process changes the nutritional profile of the flour and impacts the texture and taste of items cooked and baked with it. If you have a sensitive palate, you will be able to differentiate between a roti or bread made using bleached flour versus that made with unbleached flour.

WHAT ARE THE HEALTH ISSUES CAUSED BY BLEACHING AGENTS?

There’s no denying that bleached flour is more pocket-friendly than its unbleached counterpart. However, studies and tests have called the safety of certain bleaching agents into question. Take, for instance, the case of potassium bromate which was widely used in the food industry until a couple of decades ago. Back in 1992, the International Agency on Research for Cancer (IARC) revealed that bromate was a possible carcinogen and its consumption could cause cancer in humans. Likewise, studies conducted on laboratory animals also suggest that potassium bromate is a potential cause for different kinds of kidney diseases including cancerous tumors. As a result, several countries including the European Union, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Nigeria have declared it illegal. India banned the use of this additive pretty recently, in 2016. The sad truth is that potassium bromate is still being used in many parts of the world.

Azodicarbonamide is believed to be a potential cause for respiratory issues like asthma while chlorine dioxide adversely impacts the nutritional qualities of the flour by removing Vitamin E from it. Many bleaching agents also form a by-product called alloxan, a chemical compound that increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Benzoyl peroxide, another commonly used bleaching agent, is typically considered safe but studies show that they may break down essential fatty acids and adversely impact the antioxidant status of your body.

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