The EU Commission announced it was going to set maximum acrylamide levels in food last week (Thursday 9), but how can the chemical be managed? Food Navigator spoke to expert Gregor McCombie from Kantonales Labor Zurich, to find out how the industry could reduce their toxicity levels.
Kantonales Labor Zurich is a laboratory dedicated to food safety and legislation.
McCombie says that setting legal limits for acrylamide is problematic and instead the industry should be regulating reducing sugars for potatoes intended for (deep) frying or roasting as a more effective and easier to enforce method, than reducing acrylamide in final products.
“Just considering legal limits on acrylamide in final products is problematic, as limits would need to be high in order to prevent a quasi-ban on certain foods. However, a high limit also equates to an approval up to that level, which will invariably be too high for a carcinogenic substance like acrylamide”.
Similarly, McCombie says that the government has underestimated home-cooking, which cannot be regulated, and regulating cooking processes in restaurants is “impractical,” he says.
Instead, McCombie suggests regulation at the source as being the most logical answer, urging the food industry to use potato varieties with low reducing sugars and storing them correctly.
“Charlotte, Lady Felicia, Agria, Victoria and Bintje contain low amounts of reducing sugars at harvest. Nicola, Agata and Amandine contain a lot. More important than that, however, is the storage”.
“Storing potatoes at 4°C prevents sprouting but also increases the reducing sugars. Storing at higher temperatures (8-9°C) enables the storage of potatoes for many months without sprouting or the formation of reducing sugars. This means there is a need for specific storage facilities for potatoes intended for crispy products, as the sugar content can be high, if potatoes are only boiled,” he said.
Not only can using potato varieties with low levels of reducing sugars lower acrylamide but can also deliver tastier food.
"Crispiness can be achieved without the formation of a bitter taste", explained McCombie.
Make asparaginase mandatory
McCombie also said the use of asparaginase should be made mandatory within the industry of bakery products.
Asparaginase, an enzyme used in food production, reduces acrylamide formation by eliminating asparagine before baking.
Currently, asparaginase, marketed under brand names such as, Novozyme's Acrylaway and DSM's PreventASe, is used in the production of snacks and biscuits.
McCombie says an improvement in acrylamide levels has been seen in Switzerland, where regulation is carried out at the source, through the use of low reducing sugars potato varieties.
"As a result, chips in Swiss restaurants usually contain less than 100 µg/kg acrylamide - several times lower than outside Switzerland - which is immediately visible by crispy products with little browning (only international fast food chains do not comply with this)", he said.
Under Swiss regulation, tubers considered suitable for industrial production of chips or for roasting must pass a frying test which limits the content of reducing sugars to 0.7 g/kg.
Recent methods of reducing acrylamide exposure have been criticised by many commentators, especially the Food Standard Agency's 'Go for Gold' campaign, in the UK, in which consumers were given guidelines on how to cook starchy food products.
Food journalist, Joanna Blythman, wrote in an article for FoodNavigator's sister publication The Grocer that the initiative is "an utter shambles".
Blythman criticised the FSA for giving a cookery lesson to consumers rather than fixing the problem of acrylamide at the source, and says that the risk of acrylamide exposure is much lower in the home compared to industrially- or restaurant-prepared foods.
She said: "This campaign is the last straw for civilians who have diligently tried to follow government food advice. Their confidence in the evidence base of FSA and NHS Choices dietary homilies is gone. We’re sick of lectures, all those finger-wagging dogmas that defy common sense".