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Acrylamide may be added to Canada’s toxic substance list

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 26-Feb-2009

Health Canada has recommended that acrylamide – a possible carcinogen found in French fries and potato chips – be included on the nation’s list of toxic substances.

The chemical is produced when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures, and is caused by a reaction, known as the Maillard effect, between sugar and an amino acid called asparagine. It is this process which creates the brown color and tasty flavor of baked, fried and toasted foods.

Acrylamide was first called into question in 2002, when scientists at the Swedish Food Association found unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide – which had been found to cause cancer in laboratory rats – in carbohydrate-rich foods.

Now a recommendation has been made on the grounds that current consumption levels “may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health.” It was published in the Canada Gazette on February 21.

Research efforts

The recommendation did acknowledge, however, that research into a possible carcinogenic link for humans has so far been inconclusive.

It said: “While the mode of induction of tumors by acrylamide has not been fully elucidated, it can not be precluded that the tumors observed in experimental animals have resulted from direct interaction with genetic material.”

The decision to recommend acrylamide’s inclusion on the list is part of the Canadian government’s ongoing review of nearly two hundred chemical substances in widespread commercial use that have never before been subjected to thorough risk analysis.

Since the 2002 Swedish discovery, over 200 research projects have been undertaken to find out more about the chemical, with their findings coordinated by national governments, the UN and the EU. Over the past few years, food manufacturers have been making efforts to remove or reduce the chemical in their products, despite a number of null results from these studies.

Industry approaches

Successful approaches employed so far include converting asparagine, the precursor to acrylamide formation, into an impotent form using an enzyme, binding asparagine to make it inaccessible, adding amino acids, changing the pH to alter the reaction products, cutting heating temperatures and times, and removing compounds from recipes that may promote acrylamide formation.

However, most attention in the past two years for reducing the chemical has focused on the use of enzymes to convert asparagine into another amino acid called aspartic acid, thereby preventing the creation of acrylamide. There are two main competitors in this area: Novozymes with its Acrylaway enzyme, and DSM’s Preventase, both of which were launched for use by the food industry in 2007.

The Canadian government is inviting comments on the recommendation until April 22.

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