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Revised acrylamide toolbox now 'more applicable' to high-risk food categories

By Jane Byrne , 04-Oct-2011

To improve its user friendliness, trade body FoodDrinkEurope has restructured its ‘acrylamide toolbox’ around the three main ingredient types - potatoes, cereals and coffee - that are more commonly associated with the risk of higher formation of the chemical.

The European food and drink manufacturer representatives also report that the latest version of the toolbox includes up-to-date scientific research on low acrylamide risk potatoes/wheat varieties and is informed by feedback from various trade associations.

"This revised structure increases the overall length of the toolbox, but allows the reader to better comprehend the parameters which may be applied selectively in line with their particular needs and product/process criteria. In addition, the stage at which the different studies have been conducted, i.e. laboratory, pilot, or in a factory setting, are aligned to the potential mitigation measures,” reports FoodDrinkEurope.

The Brussels-based group added that clearer alignment of the section on risk with the Codex Alimentarius code of practice for the mitigation of the chemical in foods gives the toolbox global relevance.

Snack makers' role

Steve Chandler, secretary general of the European Snacks Association (ESA), whose membership helped revised the toolbox, said that it now includes the latest information on acrylamide mitigation in a more accessible format:

The revised toolbox will allow companies to identify and utilise the most appropriate ‘tools’ for their particular circumstances and reinforces industry's commitment to tackling this complex issue.”

The toolbox, launched in 2005, was designed to provide companies with the latest findings and best practice on how to reduce acrylamide formation.

It is, in particular, intended to assist individual food manufacturers, including SMEs with limited R&D resources, to assess and evaluate which of the intervention steps identified so far may be helpful to reduce acrylamide formation.

Meanwhile, the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said it, as per trade associations in other countries, is aiming to ensure that the new version of the toolbox is widely undersood by companies of all sizes through a series of technical webinars explaining the content of the document and how to use it.

Impact assessment

FoodDrinkEurope argues that the toolbox has been successful in helping food companies identify the best ways to reduce acrylamide in their products.

"Companies obviously monitor the results of mitigation strategies internally," explained Beate Kettlitz, director food policy, science and R&D at the trade body. But she told this publication that the "most impressive results may be seen in the baby biscuit and biscuits sectors, which is now a new section in the toolbox."

"In other areas, such as coffee, we can really not show effects despite all our efforts," added Kettilz.

But, in April this year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that, so far, the toolbox has had only minimal impact.

“As in previous annual acrylamide reports it can likewise be concluded that the application of the acrylamide toolbox has had only limited success,” found the EU food safety agency.

EFSA said that, on comparing data from 2009 with 2007, a trend towards lower acrylamide levels was detected only in crackers, infant biscuits and gingerbread.

However, over the same three-year period it found that levels of the substances actually increased in crisp bread and instant coffee. There was no change in six groups: potato crisps, oven fried potatoes, breakfast cereals, jarred baby foods, processed cereal-based baby foods and ‘bread not specified’.

Kettilz concedes there is still a need for increased promotion of the toolbox, the associated multiple language sector pamphlets and the use of the various acrylamide mitigation methods with the wider industry, in particular the small and medium size enterprises (SMEs).

Acrylamide formation

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.

The food industry has explored a range of strategies to tackle it, from changing cooking processes to reducing asparagine at source through crop breeding. However, the most established solution is using the enzyme asparaginase to convert asparagine into aspartate (another naturally occurring amino acid) so that asparagine is not available to form acrylamide when starchy products are cooked.

Kettlitz said that asparaginase can help manufacturers of dough-based products such as biscuits or baby cereals to reduce acrylamide formation by up to 50% without affecting taste, colour or texture.

She reports that potato products are more challenging though as it is harder for the enzyme to reach the asparagine inside the cells. But she added that the first positive results have been achieved. "Obviously the success of the use of the enzyme very much depends on the recipe, the water content and temperatures and, of course, the time the enzymes has to get in contact with the dough," explained Kettlitz.

Acrylamide exposure levels

Despite being a carcinogen in the laboratory, many epidemiological studies have reported that everyday exposure to acrylamide in food is too low to be of concern.

The compound 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.

Since the Swedish discovery a global effort has been underway to amass data about this chemical. More than 200 research projects have been initiated around the world and their findings co-ordinated by national governments, the EU and the United Nations.

The revised toolbox can be accessed here.

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