Formed in food processing by heating sugars, including cooking sugar with protein, and by heating carbohydrates, high levels of furan have been linked to liver cancer in animals. The Food and Drug Administration will investigate if very low levels in which it is found in many foods can harm humans.
"The FDA will continue to thoroughly evaluate its preliminary data and conduct additional studies to better determine the potential risk. Until more is known, FDA does not advise consumers to alter their diet," said Dr. Lester M. Crawford, acting FDA commissioner.
The FDA preliminary analysis - using a new gas chromatography/mass spectrometry method developed by FDA scientists - detected furan at levels as low as 2 parts per billion in coffee and some juices. Furan was found at varying higher levels in products including baby foods, spaghetti sauces, canned soups, creamed corn and baked beans.
Keen to reassure industry and consumers the FDA said that the levels of furan - naturally occurring chemical found in a variety of substances, including foods and drinks - should not be viewed as an 'indicator of furan exposure', or as the 'risk' of eating certain foods. « First, calculating exposure requires consideration of both furan levels, and the amounts of food that consumers eat. Second, estimates of furan exposure take into account not single food items, but the wide variety of foods found in a range of diets. Third, the scope of our data is too limited to properly consider potential sources of variation in measured furan levels, » said the FDA.
The US food industry reacted to the FDA statement by stressing that the findings 'were not a warning to consumers, nor are they a finding of risk associated with any particular foods or individual brands.'
"The existence of furan in many types of foods has long been known, » said Richard Jarman, vice president of Food and Environmental Policy for the food industry body, the National Food Processors Association (NFPA). But he added the industry would closely track the investigation and 'seek opportunities to aid in the scientific inquiry.'
At the next Food Advisory Committee meeting on 8 June this year the FDA will 'seek the committee's expert input' on the data required to fully understand the risk posed to humans by furan.
The European Commission recently earmarked €166m in funding for a range of projects under the 'food quality and safety' priority of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). One particular project will focus on health risks associated with hazardous compounds in heat-treated carbohydrate-rich foods, where substantial amounts of acrylamide - another potential carcinogen recently found in carbohydrate-rich fried foods - and similar compounds can be formed.
In order to assess the potential risks, the project is exploring cooking and processing methods in industry and households with the aim of controlling and minimising the formation of hazardous compounds such as furans.