More research 'to fill the gaps' on acrylamide

Related tags Acrylamide Potato

The UK's food watchdog is keeping a close eye on emerging research
for the chemical acrylamide, a potential carcinogen discovered in
crisps and French fries two years ago and which ignited a raft of
new research to assess the risk to the consumer.

At a recent meeting of the Working Party on Chemical Contaminants in Food (WPCC), Karen Goonan from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported that there are approximately 150 on-going acrylamide projects worldwide, with the majority of work concentrating on potatoes and cereals. But the FSA is apparently looking to fund research "to fill some of the gaps"​, including looking at acrylamide in the UK diet and acrylamide formation in domestically prepared food.

In April 2002, this potentially harmful chemical came to the attention of the food industry when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration first reported unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich foods, including crisps, chips and some breads. Since then, acrylamide has been found in a range of cooked and heat-processed foods in other countries, including the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

And later in 2002, breakthrough research led by Professor Don Mottram at the University of Reading looked at how the chemical could be formed.

Mottram's team suspected it could be created by a reaction between an amino acid called asparagine, which occurs naturally in relatively high levels in potatoes and other cereals, and sugar.

Tests confirmed that when the amino acid is heated, it does react with sugar to create acrylamide, a process called the Maillard reaction. This occurs at temperatures above 100°C (212°F).

Their findings were published in Nature​ 419, 448-449 (2002).

Causing a wave of concern, these two key studies propelled the food industry into working together, a rare event, to find out more. "I've never seen the food industry work together like this - working collectively to find solutions. The food industry has definitely acted responsably,"​ Prof. Mottram told a conference in Germany last November, adding that he was currently working with six different companies - normally competitors - to investigate the formation of acrylamide.

Speaking recently to​Professor Mottram said that the industry was still working to monitor the presence of acrylamide in foods and trying to look at empirical ways to gauge the problem.

In particular, the industry is looking at ways to reduce acrylamide levels by moderating the processing conditions - investigating, for example, certain potato varieties and the impact they can have on the chemical's formation.

A recent two-day workshop in Brussels organised by the European Commission gave a run down on acrylamide in food. Of note was advice to the food industry on potatoes - to not only select varieties with low levels of reducing sugars but also use pre-treatments involving pre-blanching or soaking in water at room temperature.

Lowering the pH of the soaking water and avoiding the cold storage of potatoes also seems to help and, in light of recent research, notably from Mottram and colleagues, dipping part-cooked cut potato products in glucose solutions should be avoided.

While the WPCC said that discussions on acrylamide at Codex have highlighted the need to collate information on how acrylamide can be reduced, they added that improved communication to the industry and consumers was required.

"The next area of focus on acrylamide is a risk assessment due to take place by the Joint FAO/WHO Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)​ in February 2005. JECFA have asked for data to support it in producing a risk assessment and the FSA will be providing data,"​ informed the FSA, according to the minutes of the WPCC meeting.

A global effort has seen the UN-backed World Health Organisation (WHO) co-ordinating scientists on acrylamide research projects across the world. And the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have developed a database to summarise research activities in the EU.

The Commission's Joint Research Centre is co-ordinating work on analytical methods and is collecting data on the levels detected in different foods. For 'long-term research needs,' the Commission has included the topic in the 6th Framework Programme for research and technological development.

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