Richard Stadler, chair of an EU Confederation of Food and Drinks Industries (CIAA) scientific group studying ways to reduce acrylamide in food products, said further reductions would have to come via some form of technological breakthrough.
The CIAA scientific group is also focusing on pushing the agricultural sector to develop new varieties of vegetables that do not tend to form acrylamide during manufacturing processes, Stadler said.
Stadler, who is head of quality management at Nestlé's product technology centre in Switzerland, spoke yesterday at the CIAA's annual meeting being held here in Belgium's capital.
Another potential technique is the use of an enzyme that has been shown to transform acrylamide back into asparagine, a naturally occurring chemical, he said. The enzyme has not yet been approved for use in the EU he noted.
Stadler is part of a CIAA team that assesses techniques for reducing the chemical in foods. Workable techniques are then published as part of a CIAA effort to share such information with smaller manufacturers, who may not have access to the resources available to the larger companies.
It is also part of a commitment to regulators by the EU's food industry to investigate all possible ways for reducing acrylamide levels. The commitment includes funding primary research into the chemical's formation.
So far the EU's food industry has investigated 105 approaches to reducing the potential carcinogen in food products and 39 changes have been applied in the EU, Stadler said in his presentation of the work.
He noted that in reality only eight of the changes could be implemented without any significant alternation to the food product.
"These are the low hanging fruit," Stadler said. "What we need to focus on is controlling acrylamide formation at the agricultural level."
Progress has also been made in identifying key intermediates in acrylamide formation, such as 3-aminopropionamide, he said.
"The thermolytic release of acrylamide from gluten in wheat bread rolls was demonstrated as an alternative pathway, albeit with only low yields," he said.
A wide range of cooked foods - prepared industrially, in catering, or at home - contain acrylamide at levels between a few parts per billion (ppb) to over 1000 ppb. The foods include bread, fried potatoes and coffee as well as specialty products like potato crisps, biscuits, crisp bread, and a range of other heat-processed products.
Acrylamide hit the headlines in 2002 when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration first reported unexpectedly high levels of the potential carcinogen in carbohydrate-rich foods cooked at high temperatures. Until then acrylamide was known only as a highly reactive industrial chemical, present also at low levels for example in tobacco smoke.
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.
Acrylamide appears to form as a result of a reaction between specific amino acids, including asparagine, and sugars found in foods reaching high temperatures during cooking processes. The process is known as the Maillard reaction. This occurs at temperatures above 100°C (212°F).
The work of the CIAA's scientific group on acrylamide has resulted in a "toolbox" of techniques that apply to different sectors.
Stadler said the group has produced pamphlets suggesting how recipes and processing techniques can be changed for specific food manufacturing sectors. Their targets include those manufacturing baked products and chips or crisps.
The pamphlets, which summarise methods contained in the CIAA's main toolbox document, have been sent to the EU's national regulators for comments. They will then be distributed by national regulators once the working group publishes them in final form.
The CIAA main document on acrylamide reduction was last updated at the end of September.
Steve Chandler, secretary general of the European Snacks Association, said the crisps sector has managed to reduce acrylamide by up to 40 per cent in packaged products. The CIAA's annual conference ends today.