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Acrylamide: A scandal in the making

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 03-Dec-2012
Last updated on 06-Dec-2012 at 09:56 GMT2012-12-06T09:56:01Z

Acrylamide is formed in starchy foods during heating
Acrylamide is formed in starchy foods during heating

Acrylamide is a recognised carcinogen that we’ve known is in our food at dangerous levels for a decade. Today, the food industry has tools to mitigate it, but uptake is slow.

Industry, beware.  This is how scandals are made.

Swedish researchers in 2002 were shocked to find acrylamide in many commonly consumed foods at levels up to 500 times the World Health Organization (WHO) maximum limit for drinking water.

We now know that acrylamide is present at high levels in starchy foods when they are toasted, grilled or baked through a process called the Maillard reaction, in which sugars react with the amino acid asparagine to give foods like French fries, crisps, breakfast cereals, baked goods  and coffee their brown colour and tasty flavour.

For the past ten years, ingredient suppliers have been pulling out the stops to arm the food industry with tools to reduce acrylamide, and they have done a great job. There are now ingredients and processes to significantly cut the acrylamide content of a wide variety of foods.

So why is it that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) finds little change in acrylamide levels over time? In some food categories, levels have actually increased.

Lack of awareness

Right now, acrylamide is off consumers’ radar – and however cost-effective a solution may be, any reduction technique is still an expense.

But acrylamide is not going anywhere, and the industry needs to do some damage control before it becomes a major PR disaster, even if public awareness of the problem is still relatively low.

Acrylamide has hit the headlines before. California’s attorney general raised a lawsuit against several French fry manufacturers in 2005, accusing them of not providing warning labels detailing acrylamide content on their products. The warning label idea was dropped in 2006, but the case was only settled two years later, when Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance agreed to reduce the acrylamide in their fried potatoes and paid penalties and costs.

This should sound a clear warning, especially as the science builds detailing acrylamide’s adverse effects. Most recently, researchers suggested a link between high maternal acrylamide intake and low birth weight.

It may not be a big issue for consumers yet, who already have their plates full worrying about ingredients and processes that often have nowhere near as strong a link to cancer or genotoxicity.

Surely it is just a matter of time.

‘When you start talking about cancers, they don’t want to hear’

The food industry is getting it in the neck from all sides and, more and more often, Big Food is compared to Big Tobacco as the corporate bad guy sitting on a pile of cash while the world faces the dual food-related problems of overnourishment and undernourishment.

Indeed, one supplier of acrylamide reduction technology speaking with FoodNavigator last week said: “It’s a bit like the tobacco industry. When you start talking about cancers they don’t want to hear.”

Currently, unlike the tobacco industry, food companies have a window of opportunity to do the right thing for public health and to avoid tarnished reputations.

There’s a time for debate as evidence is gathered and there’s a time for action. The evidence against acrylamide is clear.

It’s time for action.

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