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.
The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) receives annual updates on acrylamide data from European member states, covering 2000 products in key food categories.
After looking at the submissions from 21 states plus Norway for 2007, EFSA has compared these with data from the European Commission Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements for 2003 to 2006.
It found that bread, potato crisps, coffee and other products showed reductions in acrylamide levels, whereas biscuits, breakfast cereals, French fries, and potato products for home cooking showed increases. There was no difference for the category of cereal-based baby foods.
EFSA said that the reduction for bread and potato crisps made sense, since early attempts to reduce levels have focused on these two groups.
For bread the arithmetic mean level has decreased from 274 to 135 μg/kg, which may be due to changes in crispbread processing; for crisps, the mean is down from 678 to 628 μg/kg
For coffee, however, the reduction in the mean from 427 to 253 μg/kg is puzzling and cast doubt on the methodology used in early testing.
“A decrease in the acrylamide content in coffee is considered less realistic since there are no suitable mitigation measures for coffee so far,” said EFSA.
Together bread and coffee were said to account for 30 per cent of overall reduction in levels across food groups.
EFSA does not draw firm conclusions about the higher levels perceived in some categories.
Food industry and researchers have been putting their heads together to come up with potential solutions to the acrylamide problem, and these have been compiled into a toolbox by the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA).
Despite the achievements catalogued by the EFSA, the agency said: “It is not yet clear if the acrylamide toolbox has achieved its desired effects”.
The toolbox is considered as a living guidance document, and has been updated as new solutions have become available. In 2007, for instance, asparaginase enzymes were included for the first time after DSM and Novozymes both launched their respective enzymes to the market.
Other mechanisms that have been suggested include controlling levels of reducing sugars, controlling temperature and time of cooking, aiming for a lighter golden colour, replacing ammonium bicarbonate with other raising agents, and avoiding use of fructose.
EFSA’s scientific document is available here.