Furan, a colourless, volatile liquid used in some chemical manufacturing industries, causes cancer in animals in studies where animals are exposed to furan at high doses.
Occasionally identified in foods, in May last year scientists at the US Food and Drug Administration discovered that furan forms in some foods - such as canned or jarred foods like soups, sauces and baby foods - more commonly than previously thought.
Canadian researchers at McGill University claim they can now explain the presence of this chemical in a wide range of food products.
"Furan and its derivatives sometimes form when amino acids or sugars are broken down by the heat of cooking," explains lead researcher Dr. Yaylayan.
The study shows how food-based amino acids and sugars break down when heated to produce furan. It also identifies other food components, such as vitamin C and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which may produce furan as an unwanted by-product of cooking, bottling or canning food products.
"Normally, furan is a volatile chemical which tends to quickly evaporate. However, when it cannot escape for some reason, for example if it is in sealed cans or jars, then it remains present in the food for some time," he added.
But, the scientists cautioned that levels identified by both the US and Canadian agencies are well below 'what is considered dangerous.'
Even so, "food companies and government agencies are keeping a close eye on the situation. It's important to know exactly what chemicals are present in food, and to understand how they form during processing," commented Yaylayan.
The FDA furan discovery in 2004 prompted the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to set up a panel of science experts charged with finding out more the chemical that they suspect forms in food during traditional heat treatment techniques, such as cooking, jarring, and canning.
"By gathering as much information as possible, the CONTAM panel would like to obtain a more informed view of the situation. After having collected information from all sources available, the working group will draft a report summarising the available data and identifying gaps and research needs," EFSA said in a statement at the time.
An integral element to their research is data provided by the European food and drink industry through the industry's medium, the CIAA.
EFSA confirmed it was not looking for information on specific brands, but that it would be "quite happy" with generic descriptions, such as instant or ground coffee.
"Furthermore, it would be desirable to indicate which analytical method was used to determine the levels of furan in foods," said the Brussels-based body that added it would work closely with the FDA, Health Canada and other authorities on this issue.
The European food industry and consumers can only expect to hear any feedback - and further action - on the EFSA furan data collection once the full findings have been collated and after a discussion with the advisory forum.