Acrylamide forms naturally during the cooking of starchy foods at high temperatures by a process called the Maillard reaction, in which sugar reacts with an amino acid called asparagine to give baked and fried foods their brown color and tasty flavor.
But the alarm was raised in 2002 when Swedish scientists found unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich foods and published evidence linking it to cancer in lab rats. Since then, research has poured into the area and industry has rallied to find ways to slash the chemical from foods.
The most attention for acrylamide reduction or removal has focused on the potential of asparaginase enzymes to tackle the problem. The two main players in this area, DSM and Novozymes, both launched their solutions for use by the food industry in 2007, after having licensed the application rights from Frito Lay and Proctor and Gamble.
DSM's Preventase and Novozyme's Acrylaway are said to work in the same way: they convert asparagine into another amino acid called aspartic acid, thus preventing it from being converted into acrylamide. The effect is a reduction in acrylamide in the final product by as much as 90 per cent.
While Preventase is derived from Aspergillus niger, Acrylaway comes from a different strain, Aspergillus oryzae.
Asparaginase is permitted for use in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark, and has been given a favorable evaluation by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). Assessment by Health Canada’s scientists has also concluded that the enzyme is safe for food use.
Representative industry body, Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC), said in a statement that it supports the use of asparaginase to reduce consumers’ exposure to acrylamide.
FCPC’s senior vice president of public affairs Derek Nighbor said: “Health Canada has been working closely with the food industry and is aware of the positive changes food manufacturers have already made to reduce levels of acrylamide in food products…
“FCPC and our members fully support Health Canada's commitment to enabling the regulatory approval of asparaginase. The use of asparaginase is an important mitigation tool in some products and FCPC has encouraged the federal government to move swiftly toward its approval – as other modern countries in the world have."
In late August, acrylamide was added to Canada’s list of toxic substances, and around the same time, the US Food and Drug Administration requested comments to form the basis of industry guidance, and the EU proposed that the chemical be included on its list of Substances of Very High Concern.
Health Canada has said it will accept comments until February 21, 2010. Comments can be submitted online at firstname.lastname@example.org.