A report published last week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has found limited success in efforts to encourage voluntary food industry reductions of acrylamide in processed food products. The annual report followed the collection of three years’ worth of data beginning in 2007, when the European Commission first started asking member states to monitor acrylamide levels in food.
Acrylamide is a chemical compound that forms naturally in foods, usually when browned from high temperature cooking such as frying or baking. Its presence in food has been on the scientific radar since a Swedish discovery in 2002, which attracted worldwide media and scientific attention due to acrylamide’s established reputation as a carcinogen in industrial applications like water purification, packaging, and paper manufacturing.
In food, acrylamide forms whether the food is cooked at home or in a processing plant.
Concentrations of acrylamide in food are generally considered to be too low to threaten human health, though studies have shown that high dietary doses can induce cancer in lab rodents, and high exposure in industrial settings can lead to nerve damage in humans. The World Health Organization and numerous other groups have investigated the compound, while the European Chemical Agency includes it on its list of “substances of very high concern.”
The new EFSA report found that out of 22 monitored high-acrylamide food products, three showed declining trends in acrylamide levels (crackers, infant biscuits, and gingerbread), while two products showed rising trends and the others made little to no change or lacked sufficient data.
The report went on to identify fried potatoes (including French fries), roasted coffee, and bread as the greatest sources of acrylamide in European adults. Beyond those, prune juice, canned black olives, and breakfast cereal have also proven to contain high concentrations of the compound, though not enough data exists to link any human illnesses or ill effects with the consumption of high-acrylamide foods.
Still, the European Commission has taken efforts to encourage voluntary reductions on the part of European food processors through the “Acrylamide Toolbox,” a non-regulatory educational document produced by the European Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries (CIAA). The Toolbox details strategies and techniques for reducing acrylamide in various foods, such as frying potatoes at lower temperatures or making cereals from wheat with lower concentrations of the amino acid asparagine, one of the main reactants in the production of acrylamide.
One problem highlighted by the CIAA, however, is that aiming for lower acrylamide levels inevitably impacts foods’ flavors, textures, colors, and in some cases, beneficial nutrients. Because acrylamide results from a reaction between asparagine and sugars, attempts to lower acrylamide levels can lessen nutritional value, the 2009 Toolbox draft explains.
“Both asparagine and sugars are not only important and desirable nutrients, naturally present in many foods, they are also important to plant growth and development,” the Toolbox reads. “In most foods, they cannot be considered in isolation, since they are part of the highly complex chemical composition and metabolism of food plants.”
Ultimately, the EFSA report concluded that more detectable trends will only emerge after amassing additional years’ worth of data.
Since 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has considered establishing guidelines for acrylamide reductions, inspired by some U.S. food manufacturers that have target reductions. The commenting period for the FDA’s acrylamide investigation ended in January 2010, and non-regulatory guidelines may be forthcoming.
In cooperation with the FDA, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) has been conducting studies on the carcinogenesis of acrylamide. At the beginning of April, the NTP published a peer review draft of a two-year study involving rodents fed acrylamide in their water. Though still under review, the current draft links the compound to clear evidence of carcinogenic activity.
The FDA estimates that Americans ingest anywhere from 21 to 60 micrograms of acrylamide each day, mainly through coffee and heated potato or cereal products such as French fries, potato chips, cookies, and crackers. The agency also states that a clear understanding of the compound’s effect on humans requires further years of research.
While the CIAA’s Toolbox has helped influence the FDA’s approach to acrylamide, the document bluntly recognizes the inherent limits to successful reductions, saying that complete elimination of acrylamide from food is “virtually impossible.” It also places modern concern within a more historical context:
“It is now known that acrylamide is a common reaction product generated in a wide range of cooking processes, and that it has been present in human foods and diets probably since man has cooked food.”