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05/12/2016

EU food safety watchdog issues cancer warning on acrylamide

Agriculture & Food

EU food safety watchdog issues cancer warning on acrylamide

Acrylamide is the same reaction that ‘browns’ food and affects its taste

[kid missile/Flickr]

Experts from the European Food Safey Authority (EFSA) have confirmed previous conclusions that acrylamide, a chemical substance formed when heating foods like potato chips, barbecued meat, and bread, potentially increases the risk of developing cancer.

EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) said it stood by a draft opinion, published in July last year, which concluded on an increased risk of cancer caused by acrylamide.

Over the past year, EFSA held a public consultation to improve its scientific opinion on acrylomide, but left its conclusions unchanged, the agency announced on Thursday (4 June).

The risk applies to all age groups, EFSA said in a statement.

Baking and roasting

Acrylamide is a chemical compound that typically forms in food products such as potato crisps, chips, bread, biscuits and coffee, during high-temperature processing (above 120°), including frying, baking and roasting.

Acrylamide has previously been linked to cancer. In 2002, Swedish researchers found the compound by coincidence, and had a strong suspicion that acrylamide was a carcinogenic agent.

“The public consultation helped us to fine-tune the scientific opinion. In particular, we have further clarified our evaluation of studies on the effects of acrylamide in humans and our description of the main food sources of acrylamide for consumers. Also, recent studies that we became aware of during the public consultation phase have been integrated into the final scientific opinion,” said Diane Benford, Chair of the CONTAM panel.

FoodDrinkEurope, a trade association, noted that the levels of acrylamide found in different products are dependent upon a wide-range of factors, but recognises the importance of reducing acrylamide wherever possible.

For more than a decade, industrial food producers have tried to reduce acrylamide in their products and have developed a toolbox in collaboration with the European Commission and EU member states as well as a code of practice and guidance for SMEs.

“These actions have successfully reduced acrylamide levels in a number of foods,” FoodDrinkEurope told EurActiv.

Individual food companies have also contributed to EFSA’s call for data by providing some 40,000 samples from various food products to ensure the broadest possible survey.

“Europe’s food and drink manufacturers continue to invest significant resources to address the issue of acrylamide, particularly through education, participation in crop research programmes and the introduction of new food processing procedures and technologies,” the industry group added.

No other harmful effects

Apart from cancer, EFSA also considered other possible harmful effects of acrylamide, for example the nervous system. But the effects were not considered to be a concern, based on current levels of dietary exposure, the agency said.

The EU’s food safety agency will now advise and inform EU and national decision-makers on how to reduce consumer exposure to acrylamide in food. Reccomendations might include advice on eating habits and home cooking, or controls on commercial food production.

Background

Cooking food at high temperatures, for example grilling or barbecuing meats, can lead to the formation of minute quantities of many potent carcinogens that are comparable to those found in cigarette smoke.

Reports from the UK's Food Standards Agency have found that the known animal carcinogen acrylamide is generated in fried or overheated carbohydrate foods (such as crisps and chips).

Studies are underway at the European regulatory agencies and the FDA to assess its potential risk to humans.

Further Reading

EU institutions