European almonds pose less of an acrylamide risk than their US counterparts, finds a new study to interest confectioners.
Researchers at Swiss research centre ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) investigated the formation of acrylamide - a potential carcinogenic compound - in almonds.
Acrylamide 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, such as crisps, cooked at high temperatures.
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.
Recent findings, propelled by UK scientist Professor Don Mottram at the University of Reading, suggest that the free amino acid asparagine, found naturally in potatoes and cereals, could play a key role in the formation of acrylamide.
Tests show that when the amino acid is heated, it does react with sugar to create acrylamide, a process called the Maillard reaction.
Following the asparagine track, the latest ETH Zurich study opted to investigate the influences of composition and roasting conditions on acrylamide formation in almonds and hazelnuts.
"Almonds of European origin contained significantly less free asparagine and formed significantly less acrylamide during roasting compared to the almonds from the US," report the researchers in the September 2005 issue of J. Agric. Food Chem. 2005, Volume 53, 7819-7825.
And of particular note, roasted hazelnuts contained very little acrylamide because of the low content of free asparagine in the raw nut, they add.
Demand for almonds has increased in recent years as the tastes of various almond-eating ethnic communities have expanded into more mainstream foods. The almond boards have provoked greater consumption of the nut through better and more frequent marketing.
But the nut has witnessed a doubling in prices in the past year to $8,400 (£4,700) a tonne. Sending prices soaring, the US, a leading producer of almonds, saw the 2005 crop fall by about 15 per cent on last year's crop.
In Europe, Spain and Turkey lead the market in almond supplies. Whether a food firm opts to source from the US or Europe will depend on a raft of criteria, notably price, size, availability and colouring.