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No increased concern from food process contaminants, FSA

By Lorraine Heller , 04-Oct-2010

Levels of acrylamide and a number of other process contaminants present in foods are not a cause for increased concern about the risk to human health, according to the latest survey.

Conducted by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) on recommendation by the European Commission, the survey aimed to examine whether initiatives by the food industry to reduce acrylamide and furan have been effective.

As part of its three-year study, the FSA also extended its investigation to cover levels of 3-MCPD (3-monochloropropanediol) and ethyl carbamate, to gain a clear picture of the levels of a range of process contaminants in the food that is commonly eaten in the UK.

Process contaminants

Process contaminants are chemical substances that are produced in food during food manufacturing, cooking (including home cooking), packaging and other processing activities.

The substances are formed when components in food undergo chemical changes during processing, which can include fermentation, acid hydrolysis, smoking, drying as well as some types of cooking (such as baking, grilling, frying and barbecuing).

The two substances high on the EC’s priority list are acrulamide and furan.

Acrylamide is a suspected carcinogen that is formed during by heat-induced reaction between sugar and an amino acid called asparagine. Known as the Maillard reaction, this process is responsible for the brown colour and tasty flavour of baked, fried and toasted foods. It first hit the headlines in 2002, when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration first reported unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide, found to cause cancer in laboratory rats, in carbohydrate-rich foods.

Furan is an organic compound with aromatic properties which has been found to be carcinogenic in animal studies. It can form during the heat-treatment of food products, and contributes to the taste and smell of a prepared food product. Red flags were first waved over levels in tinned and canned foods in 2004, when the US Food and Drug Administration reported detecting higher levels than previously thought. It said this was not due to an increase in furan levels, but that new analytical techniques now allow for better detection. The reason for the formation of furan is not yet certain.

No increased concern

In its latest survey, FSA conducted 458 analyses on 308 samples representing 10 food groups for combinations of acrylamide, furan, 3-MCPD and ethyl carbamate.

Overall, the agency found that occurrence and levels for all of the process contaminants surveyed were in line with results from previous research and surveys carried out in the UK and internationally.

“Based on previous risk assessments, the occurrence and levels found do not increase concern about the risk to human health and do not affect Agency’s advice on what you should eat – the Agency advises that people should eat a healthy balanced diet,” said FSA.

FSA said its findings indicated a possible reduction in acrylamide in some products, but added that it is not possible at this stage to determine whether this is a result of industry efforts or changes to analytical methods. The highest concentrations of acrylamide (>500 micrograms/kg) were found in potato crisps, instant coffee powder and cocoa powder.

Relatively high” levels of furan were found in roasted beans and ground coffee, due to the high temperatures of the roasting process, but the FSA noted that levels are significantly reduced during brewing/preparation of coffee, which reduces consumer exposure.

Average levels of 3-MCPD were all “relatively low”, while foods (excluding alcoholic beverages) were not found to be a significant source of ethyl carbamate.

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