Chances are during breakfast, lunch, or dinner, one or more of your meals will consist of wheat. From bagels to pasta, the typical American diet consists of heavy grain-based food items that are served at restaurants, and stocked on the grocery store shelves, but you may want to think twice the next time you pick up a loaf of bread. A report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found a “yoga mat” chemical — azodicarbonamide (ADA) — in 500 foods in the U.S., which could potentially increase the risk of health problems, such as asthma and skin irritation.  

Recently, public concerns about the food additive have risen due to a Subway online petition spearheaded by Foodbabe blogger, Vani Hari, demanding that ADA be removed from its sandwich bread. The petition collected more than 92,000 signatures and prompted the restaurant chain to phase out the ingredient from its bread — a process that “will be completed in the coming weeks,” Subway claimed. Hani and the EWG have made further health-conscious efforts to educate consumers on the dangerous chemical that can be found in the majority of bread brands.

Prior to the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of ADA as a food additive, the synthetic substance was primarily used by plastic manufacturers to generate tiny bubbles that make materials light, spongy, and strong. The material is found in flip-flops, yoga mats, and several types of foam packing and insulation. After it was discovered the plastics chemical could double as a “dough conditioner,” the agency approved it as a food additive. The FDA allows concentrations up to 45 parts per million in food. However, other countries in Europe and Australia do not approve ADA to be used in their foods.

The “yoga mat” chemical is intended to make bread rise higher, stay soft, and resilient, and form an attractive crust,” according to the EWG press release. EWG researchers found ADA on the labels of many well-known brands, including: Pillsbury, Sara Lee, Shoprite, Safeway, Smucker’s, Fleischman’s, Jimmy Dean, Kroger, Little Debbie, Tyson, and Wonder. Although the food additive is popularly used in hundreds of food items, the agency revealed companies can make the food without it, but it would be more strenuous to get the bread to rise since it is not a natural enzyme.

With its presence lingering the majority of bread products in the U.S., consumers should be aware of the health risks associated with ADA. Scientific data from bronchial challenge studies and health evaluations of employees at workplaces where ADA is manufactured or used have found it to induce asthma and skin sensitization, according to the World Health Organization. However, the concentration levels required to cause asthma or skin irritation are unknown. Therefore, it is crucial to keep exposure levels to a minimum.

While it seems like the battle to eliminate ADA has just begun, the EWG is calling food manufacturers to immediately end its use of the chemical in their foods. An online campaign will be launched to raise public awareness about the plastic chemical and to encourage companies to eliminate it from their ingredients. Shoppers can be proactive in reducing exposure by viewing the full list of products the EWG found to have ADA and other chemical additives.