Food Standard Regulators Turn Up Heat on Acrylamide Threat

In California, coffee shop chains have to post a sign in their stores warning consumers that small amounts of the food contaminant and carcinogen acrylamide are present in several products served on the premises. In Europe, the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union developed an acrylamide-reduction toolbox. The search continues for viable solutions that will have a minimal impact on food sensory values.

Acrylamide is a significant international food safety and quality issue, and preventing its formation is of interest not only to food manufacturers but also to such worldwide health and food safety regulators as the FDA, the European Food Safety Association, and the U.K. Food Standards Agency.Acrylamide is on California’s Proposition 65 list of carcinogenic substances, requiring a warning label on any product that contains high levels of a listed substance. The substance has been added to the European Union’s candidate list of substances of very high concern and, in 2011, member states were requested to monitor acrylamide levels in foodstuffs.

While no regulatory authorities around the world have set allowable limits for acrylamide in food, some food safety authorities have stated their wish to see levels reduced and exposure minimized.

All the regulatory attention paid to acrylamide in recent years is the result of growing global awareness since 2002—the year Swedish scientists first announced their discovery of significant quantities of the carcinogen in a wide variety of baked, fried, and toasted foods. Since then, high concentrations have been confirmed in potato chips, French fries, crisp and certain other bread types, biscuits, breaded food products, cereals (including baby food), and roasted coffee.

Epidemiological Studies Now Coming In

Acrylamide is a WHO Group 2A “probable” carcinogenic compound that forms as a byproduct of high-temperature frying, baking, or roasting (over 120°C or 248°F) either by manufacturers, at restaurants, or at home. Scientists have determined that acrylamide forms specifically as a result of a chemical reaction between the amino acid asparagine—found in most carbohydrate-rich foods—and sugars such as glucose and fructose, and is triggered by higher-temperature cooking as part of the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is responsible for giving many foods and beverages their distinctive and desirable flavors.

Recently, results of an epidemiological study from the Netherlands that analyzed 5,000 people over a 16-year period showed that exposure of 10 µg of acrylamide per day in never-smoking men was associated with a 98 percent increase in the risk of experiencing multiple myeloma. The study concluded: “This is the first epidemiological study to investigate the association between dietary acrylamide intake and the risk of lymphatic malignancies, and more research into these observed associations is warranted.” Earlier studies have shown that in women, exposure to acrylamide is associated with an increased risk of developing endometrial and ovarian cancers. The pressure is mounting on food safety regulators to resolve the acrylamide issue.

Acrylamide Reduction Strategies and Innovations

Over the past few years, the food industry has explored a range of measures to reduce acrylamide levels in end products, including changing cooking processes, recipe, and final preparation; experimenting with temperatures; and using plant breeding to reduce asparagine levels in grain or vegetable raw materials. Another measure widely tested—and is being used in many cases—is the application of the enzyme asaparaginase to convert asparagine into aspartate (another amino acid) and ammonia, with the result that less asparagine is available to be converted into acrylamide upon heat processing. The solution that appears to be the most compelling, however, is a proprietary acrylamide-preventing baker’s yeast technology developed by Functional Technologies Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia.

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