As the food industry pulls together over the acrylamide question, today we report that a week long workshop in Chicago will be dedicated to the presence of this potential carcinogen in foods.
Part of the annual National Center for Food Safety and Technology conference, sponsored by the US Food and Drug Administration, the workshop has invited experts to lead the debate.
"An ad hoc group, composed of food industry, trade association and academic and government representatives is bringing together food and nutrition experts to assess where we are on this topic and to plot the course for future action,"said Charles Santerre, a specialist in chemical contaminants in food and a professor at Purdue University.
Six months ago the Swedish Food Authority reported that some popular starchy foods, such as potato chips and chips, may contain acrylamide. At high levels, acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in animals. The implications of the Swedish findings motivated the World Health Organisation to rapidly convene international experts to discuss the impact of this discovery.
"The Food and Drug Administration is taking this very seriously, but there are holes in the data that can't be answered overnight," said Santerre. "We do know that we have been eating fried and baked foods for hundreds of years with no apparent adverse effects."
In April the Swedish Food Authority reported a wide range of acrylamide concentrations when examining a small number of starchy and fried foods. The amounts ranged from 30 to 2,300 parts per billion. Acrylamide is considered to be a probable human carcinogen and is a known neurotoxicant, said Joanne Lasrado, doctoral candidate in foods and nutrition at Purdue. The substance is a white crystalline, water-soluble compound that is used in the paper, paint, leather tanning and mining industries. It also is present in cigarette smoke.
Acrylamide is formed when foods high in starch are cooked in temperatures greater than 248 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking methods that require this amount of heat include roasting, grilling, barbecuing and baking. It is believed that when a naturally occurring amino acid, asparagine, is heated with certain sugars, such as glucose, acrylamide is created. Many snack foods are made up of starch, which is a good source of the simple sugar, glucose.
Boiled starchy foods do not show an increase in acrylamide.
Santerre said more information is needed before people abandon french fries or potato chips."People don't understand that traces of carcinogens can be found in pretty much all of our foods. Detecting a carcinogen is not a reason to change dieting patterns. We also need to think about the dose, since small doses can be harmless while high doses can be harmful. It is the job of the toxicologist to determine at what level the dose becomes harmful."
There also is no conclusive evidence that acrylamide causes cancer in humans. Questions still remain about the levels and extent of acrylamide in food products, the mechanisms by which it is formed in fried foods, whether the body can efficiently absorb and process it, along with the toxicological implications.
Lasrado said scientists need to develop analytical methods that can be more routinely used for the analysis of acrylamide in foods, since current methods are slow, expensive and technically difficult to perform. Studies also need to be conducted to find ways to reduce acrylamide formation during cooking.