Acrylamide is a chemical produced during high temperature cooking in a reaction between sugars and the amino acid asparagine, known as the Maillard reaction. It is responsible for the brown color and tasty flavor of fried, baked and toasted foods. The compound has come under scrutiny since Swedish scientists reported unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich foods and published evidence linking the chemical to cancer in laboratory rats in 2002.
But a survey of 1002 American consumers aged 25 and over, conducted by consultancy firm Financial Dynamics International (FD), has found a wide gap between consumer and governmental concern.
“Overall findings indicated there is virtually no awareness or familiarity of acrylamide among US consumers,” said vice president of business consulting for FD Curt Davies. “Upon learning of the acrylamide issue, however, nearly half of consumers are likely to self-educate about acrylamide to learn more as well as alter food consumption and food purchasing decisions. Consumers indicated they would like to see acrylamide levels listed on food packaging.”
Although there may be a very low level of awareness among consumers, government action has intensified. Last week, the Canadian government placed acrylamide on its toxic substance list, while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a request for data from researchers and industry as a precursor to possible guidelines on the substance for food manufacturers.
International assessment and further research has generally supported the view that acrylamide in food is cause for concern, despite several recent studies failing to find a link between the chemical and cancer. However, the FDA said last week that new evidence is emerging “which may confirm acrylamide's carcinogenicity in laboratory animals”.
Past director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition David Lineback said: “Acrylamide has been listed as a probable carcinogen in humans based on animal studies that indicate it is carcinogenic at high levels. This new research is vital to determine whether acrylamide may cause cancer in humans in the amount that exists in foods.”
Meanwhile, the challenge for food manufacturers is to reduce acrylamide levels without compromising taste, quality or safety.
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 in 2007.