European food watchdogs have honed in on a chemical found in food — from coffee, chips, and toast to crackers and certain types of baby food — which they believe to be a cancer risk. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the chemical poses the biggest threat to children, as they are most exposed to it. The chemical in question is called acrylamide and it is created when food is roasted, browned, or fried.
“EFSA has confirmed previous evaluations that, based on animal studies, acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups,” write the authors of a consultation paper, reports the Daily Mail. “Coffee, fried potato products, biscuits, crackers and crisp breads, soft bread and certain baby foods are important dietary sources of acrylamide. On a body weight basis, children are the most exposed age groups.”
The EFSA, which has known of the potential risks of acrylamide, hopes to place legal limits on the food industry to reduce the amount of the chemical found in supermarket and restaurant products. Additionally, a public health campaign would have to be implemented in order to give advice to those who cook at home about how to lower levels of acrylamide in home cooked meals.
Last year, a study was published by Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) finding that high levels of acrylamide were found in products ranging from ginger biscuits and KFC to even “healthy” breakfast cereals. The FSA states: “The Agency does not advise people to stop eating any of these foods, but you should follow Department of Health advice from the NHS Choices website on eating a healthy, balanced diet. We also recommend that, when making chips at home, they are cooked to a light golden colour. Bread should be toasted to the lightest colour acceptable. However, manufacturers’ instructions for frying or oven-heating foods, such as chips, should be followed carefully.”
The threat of acrylamide is nothing new, as Swedish studies dating to 2002 found that high levels of the chemical formed when frying or baking cereals and potato problems. The concern regarding the chemical lied in the fact that little study was done on the chemical and preliminary laboratory animal studies imply that the chemical is a cancer risk to animals, ergo humans.
“Acrylamide consumed orally is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, distributed to all organs and extensively metabolized,” said Dr. Diane Benford, chair of an EFSA panel examining the chemical. “Glycidamide, one of the main metabolites from this process, is the most likely cause of the gene mutations and tumors seen in animal studies.”
There is also some knowledge on how acrylamide affects people exposed to it from industrial use, as it has caused nerve damage in those exposed to very high levels of it due to occupational or accidental exposure. Considered to be a genotoxic carcinogen — since it can cause cancer by interaction with the genetic material (read: DNA) in our cells. That said, there are no definitive findings or conclusions about how serious or dismissible the cancer risks of acrylamide in food.
And it is not just food! Acrylamide is released into the water when polyacrylamide, a cleaning agent for drinking water that helps filter unwanted substances, comes into contact with water. According to the FSA, the legal limit set by the EU is 0.1 microgram per liter of drinking water, but the full implications of acrylamide in water has not been studied. Taking into consideration that the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/ World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) have concluded that dietary exposure to acrylamide is “a human health concern,” we can only hope that the government makes acrylamide a priority so that there can be an answer once and for all.