A team of researchers headed by Margareta Törnqvist from the University of Stockholm have discovered that acrylamide, a carcinogen substance, is formed by heating starch-rich foods to high temperatures. Especially fried, oven-baked and deep-fried potato and cereal products may contain high levels of acrylamide. No acrylamide was found in boiled foodstuffs.
This new knowledge has led the Swedish National Food Administration (NFA) to develop a new method for the analysis of acrylamide in food. A study of more than one hundred random samples of different foodstuffs showed considerable variation of acrylamide levels within each food group. However, many of the foodstuffs that contained high levels of acrylamide, such as potato crisps, French fries, fried potatoes, biscuits and bread, are consumed in large quantities. It may be possible to reduce the acrylamide levels by changing the methods of production and preparation.
Dr. Leif Busk, Head of the NFA’s Research and Development Department commented that this new knowledge may enable scientists to explain some of the cases of cancer caused by food.
At present there is insufficient data to warrant changing the current dietary recommendations, said the NFA. Frying at high temperatures or for a long time and eating a lot of fat-rich products (French fries and crisps) should be avoided. It is preferable to use mild food preparation methods and to eat more fibre-rich foods (cereal products, fruit and vegetables).
Mr François-Xavier Perroud, the spokesperson ofNestlé, a producer of breakfast cereals, commented that panic measures would not make sense for the moment, as the study has not yet been published in a scientific journal and yet has to be reviewed by the scientific community. He added that the Swedish government has so far not recommended any dietary changes or recall of products from the market, and it would be premature to take actions before a serious evaluation of the study is completed.
Procter&Gamble(producer of "Pringles" potato crisps) stated that it is concerned by the findings and takes them seriously. P&G understands the worries of consumers, but adds that it is reassuring that the authorities do not see any immediate problem (health risk) with any particular product. Instead, the study suggests that we need to look into our total consumption habits from a health perspective. The spokesperson added that chips are luckily a relatively small source of average consumption. However, P&G believes it has a responsibility as a producer to look closer at the findings and discuss with the authorities what the right next steps are.
Beate Gminder, the spokesperson of theEuropean Commission's Health and Consumers DG, said that the Commission had received the information and is currently evaluating it. After the evaluation, the Commission will decide whether actions need to be taken.
Acrylamide is a colorless, water-soluble solid compound, which has been produced since the 1950s and is mainly used in the industry for the production of plastics. Acrylamide may cause DNA damage and, at high doses, was found to have a detrimental effect on neurological and reproductive processes. Prolonged exposure was found to induce tumours in rats. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the substance as "probably carcinogenic to humans".
The European Union has introduced strict rules for food safety "from the farm to the fork" as well as mechanisms that enable a quick response in case of new food crises. A European Food Safety Authority is being set up and should be operational before the end of the year.
The National Food Administration and the University of Stockholm will now continue their studies. The NFA has set up a scientific committee and has initiated international contacts, e.g. with the European Commission. The National Food Administration has also invited the food industry to a meeting to discuss the matter.