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.
In 2005, the CIAA (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU) launched a toolbox of solutions to help manufacturers of food products tackle the problem. This was updated last year, with the notable inclusion of asparaginase enzymes developed by Novozymes and DSM, branded Acrylaway and Preventase, respectively.
The FSA survey was carried out in 2007, the first year of a three-year rolling programme to measure the amounts of acrylamide in foods at retail, as well as three other carcinogens that may result from manufacture, cooking, packaging, or any of the other processes involved in bringing food to the consumer. The other chemicals are 3-MCPD, furan, and ethyl carbamate.
In its concluding remarks to the survey report, the FSA said that the results from 2007 do not show an increase in levels of acrylamide.
As this was the first year of the survey, it is hard to see the impact of the CIAA toolbox. However the results from the parallel surveys in 2008 and 2009 will be collated, and “used to carry out future exposure assessments to determine the UK consumer’s exposure to acrylamide”.
For acrylamide, 178 samples were analysed overall – and 176 of these contained acrylamide.
The levels were all seen to be within previously reported highest mean range for prefabricated potato snacks, at 1143 μg/kg. Cereal-based baby foods and breads were found to have “very low levels of acrylamide in comparison”.
Biscuits and crackers were found to have the highest levels of 3-MCPD, with a mean level of 27 μg/kg; no 3-MCPD at all was found in any of the breakfast cereal samples.
The highest levels of furan were found in coffee, with a mean of 3232 μg/kg. However the FSA said that furan is highly volatile, so a considerable amount would be lost on processing.
“Therefore, consumers would not have been exposed to levels reported here as these results were obtained from retail samples before brewing,” says the report.
Finally, 30 samples were taken from different kinds of breads, fermented crispbread, and soy sauces and tested for ethyl carbamate. The concentrations were said to be “relatively low and in line with previously reported results”.
The FSA has received feedback from several manufacturers about the findings.
Procter & Gamble, the maker of Pringles potato snacks, noted that the survey was carried out in April 2007. At that time the acrylamide level was seen to be 807 μg/kg – but it said it has now managed to reduce this to 500 μg/kg.
“We must question the consumer value of reporting data that is over a year old when it does not represent current status, and for such a narrow range of products in the snack category.”
United Biscuits said that it is working with universities and conducting its own research on ways to reduce acrylamide, while still maintaining product quality.
“Not all approaches reduce levels of acrylamide significantly, or are practical in everyday use,” it said.