A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) survey of acrylamide in food products indicates that voluntary efforts to reduce levels of the carcinogen are working but only in a limited number of food groups.
The new report on acrylamide collated data from 2000 food samples across the European Union and Norway in 2008 and builds on previous surveys with the goal of tracking progress on efforts to reduce exposure.
EFSA said that in contrast to 2007 results that showed no clear trend towards lower acrylamide levels, the 2008 data reveals “a more apparent” downward trend.
This is particularly pronounced in certain product categories. EFSA said significantly lower acrylamide levels were reported for French fries, fried potato products for home cooking, soft bread, bread not specified, infant biscuit, biscuit not specified, muesli and porridge and other products not specified.
However, success in these areas was not reproduced across all the food categories where acrylamide has been identified as a potential concern. EFSA said potato crisps, instant coffee, and substitute coffee products, such as those based on barley or chicory, all showed significantly higher levels of acrylamide in 2008 compared to 2007.
EFSA suggested the approach that the food industry has so far adopted to acrylamide reduction could help explain why success has been attained for certain foods and not others.
Voluntary measures, such as the so-called CIAA toolbox approach, which was first launched in 2006, have been employed to provide guidance to food manufacturers on reducing acrylamide levels in certain products.
This may well have delivered success where it was employed but EFSA said no mitigation measures have been proposed for substitute coffee or instant coffee. Both categories have particularly high levels of acrylamide and the 2008 data indicates that these are going up rather than down.
EFSA said: “It may be appropriate to assume that the application of the acrylamide toolbox was effective only in a limited number of food groups.”
As for the general overall trend toward lower acrylamide levels, EFSA said trends will become clearer from survey results over the coming years. Alongside the surveys, EFSA plans to conduct an assessment next year to determine how the changes in levels observed in different products affect exposure levels.
Acrylamide is formed during high temperature cooking by a heat-induced reaction between sugar and an amino acid called asparagine. Known as the Maillard reaction, this process is responsible for the brown colour and tasty flavour of baked, fried and toasted foods.
The compound first hit the headlines in 2002, when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration first reported unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide, found to cause cancer in laboratory rats, in carbohydrate-rich foods.
An EFSA statement in 2005 said acrylamide is both carcinogenic and genotoxic (which means it can cause damage to the genetic material of cells).