New research by US food producer Procter & Gamble has shed some light on the formation of acrylamide in foods, a significant step forward in the battle to understand more about the potential risk from the cancer-causing chemical.
Scientists from P&G, speaking at the International Annual Meeting and Exposition of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) in Los Angeles this week, said that they had discovered a number of facts about how the chemical may be formed when food is processed.
Since the revelation by scientists in Sweden earlier this year that acrylamide could be found in a large number of foods, there has been a great deal of debate about exactly how the chemical is formed and what kinds of food are most at risk.
Current thinking is that the chemical is found mainly in starchy fried foods, especially those produced by cooking at high temperatures, but P&G's research suggests that the possible carcinogen could also be present in foods as diverse as roasted asparagus, banana chips, toasted English muffins, taco shells and pretzels.
P&G reported that the naturally occurring amino acid asparagine, coupled with a carbonyl source (such as reducing sugars like dextrose) is a key precursor to acrylamide in food products.
"We are the first to conclusively demonstrate via isotope labelling experiments that the acrylamide molecule indeed arises directly from asparagine and further demonstrated the exact part of the asparagine molecule that ultimately becomes acrylamide," said Dr Robert A. Sanders, P&G Research Fellow.
This new knowledge suggests that there are other routes that are significantly more effective at reducing acrylamide in foods rather than simply reducing frying temperature.
"P&G's research is very significant in helping the food industry understand acrylamide formation in various foods," said Henry Chin, vice president of the National Food Processors Association's Center for Technical Assistance. "The results move our state of knowledge on acrylamide forward on two fronts. First, this research has extended the capability of analytical laboratories to test foods for acrylamide, and second, this research significantly enhances our scientific understanding of the mechanisms involved in the formation of acrylamide during food preparation."
The NFPA is the voice of the US food processing industry, whose members clearly stand to lose a lot if consumer fears about the presence of acrylamide are allowed to grow unchecked. A better understanding of how the chemical is formed, and in what kinds of food, will help them take steps to eliminate the compound and to better inform their customers about the potential risks.
The NFPA has also given its support to measures being undertaken by the US Food & Drug Administration to assess the risk from acrylamide in foods.
"The NFPA agrees with the FDA that questions and possible concerns raised by the new findings of acrylamide's presence in foods by Swedish researchers in April need to be addressed and that a deliberative, scientifically sound approach is essential for assessing and appropriately addressing any public health issue," Chin said, commenting on the FDA's Draft Action Plan for Acrylamide in Food.
"The NFPA believes the priority areas identified by the FDA for immediate attention are appropriate. These include developing rapid, validated methods for analysing acrylamide in foods, collecting data on levels of acrylamide in foods, determining mechanisms of formation and obtaining critically needed information for a scientifically informed assessment of the risk of acrylamide in foods."
He said that the food industry was keen to address the questions regarding finding acrylamide in foods, but stressed that it was important not to over-exaggerate the risk to public health. "Recent research results reported by the Canadian government and the researchers from P&G about a potentially important mechanism of acrylamide formation strongly support the notion that there is a long, long history to human consumption of acrylamide in a variety of food products. This, plus the potential national and international implications, calls for a deliberative, scientifically sound approach to addressing this issue."
He concluded: "The NFPA and its member companies are closely following developments on the issue of acrylamide in food and wish to take this opportunity to express our desire and intent to work with the FDA in pursuing relevant scientific investigations and taking appropriate actions based on what is learned during this period of active research and information gathering."
Whether this will be enough to allay consumer fears - especially in light of the fact that acrylamide could be in a lot more foodstuffs than first thought - remains to be seen.