Since its discovery in 2002, acrylamide continues to cause concern as a carcinogenic public health risk in many manufactured foods and beverages. While fried potato products such as French fries and potato chips contain the highest levels of acrylamide and get the most media attention, baked goods—such as breads (soft and crisp) and snacks, pretzels, crackers, etc.—also contain acrylamide. In fact, when adjusted for consumption levels, baked goods actually contribute 40–50 percent to the average person’s overall daily dietary intake of acrylamide.
In addition to its carcinogenic status, acrylamide is also mutagenic and genotoxic and furthermore, it poses a disproportionate health risk to babies and children. For example, the acrylamide in foods consumed by pregnant women has been shown to reduce a baby’s birth weight and head circumference—key indicators of a child’s future health. In addition, according to Health Canada, because of their smaller bodies and the types of foods they consume, young children are typically exposed each day to twice as much acrylamide (per kilogram of body weight) as adults. Clearly, acrylamide is a quality and safety issue many food manufacturers would want to address, if there was a reasonable solution.
In the last year or two, government regulatory authorities across the globe have weighed in with reports advocating measures to mitigate the levels of acrylamide contained in many food products. Most recently, in June 2016, the U.S. FDA issued its voluntary mitigation guidelines for food manufacturers. While no agency has yet enacted mandatory allowable limits, it appears that the European Food Safety Agency is planning on setting these in 2017, with ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) levels possibly being the goal.
For food manufacturers, there is no escaping acrylamide as a quality control and safety issue. Almost all carbohydrate-based products will contain acrylamide due to the ubiquity of the precursors—reducing sugars and asparagine—and the practice of using cooking temperatures above 120 degrees Celsius. This becomes even more problematic during post-manufacture consumer/restaurant toasting or heating; for example, when heating bread into toast, acrylamide levels are boosted many times above what is found in the original product. Given the widespread consumer movement toward clean labels and healthier food production, manufacturers taking aim at reducing acrylamide contaminant levels to ALARA levels is a goal likely to be welcomed by both governments and consumers.
However, in order to meet potential acrylamide regulatory limits or voluntary reduction guidance to ALARA levels, food manufacturers require robust and effective tools. For example, Renaissance Ingredients Inc. has developed a non-GMO (genetically modified organism) baker’s yeast that the company says can reduce acrylamide by up to 95 percent with minimal changes to the food production process and is ready for review by food manufacturers.
Renaissance recently achieved an important milestone toward commercialization when the U.S. FDA issued a no-objections letter to the yeast’s status as GRAS (generally regarded as safe), the same status as conventional baker’s yeast.
When starchy, carbohydrate-based foods like potatoes, wheat, rice, and other grains are heated above 120 degrees Celsius by frying, baking, roasting or toasting, an amino acid they contain naturally—asparagine—reacts with sugars to form acrylamide. Although baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) has a natural ability to consume asparagine, under most food processing conditions this asparagine consumption is minimal. Therefore, conventional yeast is not effective at reducing acrylamide within typical industrial food processing timelines and parameters.
Instead, by using an adaptive evolution strategy to select for the yeast’s ability to quickly degrade asparagine in all conditions, Renaissance has been able to develop a non-GMO baker’s yeast strain that the company says is capable of reducing acrylamide in a wide variety of foods much faster. According to the company, in baked bread and dark toast lab testing, the yeast reduced acrylamide levels by 80 percent while in sliced potato French fries exposure to the yeast in a water wash reduced levels by 50 percent almost immediately and 70 percent after 10 minutes.