FROM Slovenia to the United States and Australia to Denmark, acrylamide has been a point of interest for some time. Some of our most popular processed foods contain small amounts of toxic acrylamide.
Acrylamide is formed in starchy foods when they are baked or fried as a consequence of the reaction between certain sugars and the free amino acid asparagine.
It is a carcinogen discovered by Swedish scientists in 2002 but acrylamide has become a typical constituent of modern diets and may play a minor role in the emergence of certain ‘modern' diseases. Dietary intake levels of acrylamide have been rising in the Western world since the early 1900s.
As suggested by several recent studies, acrylamide intake may also be associated with the increased incidence of neurodegenerative and other types of diseases.
But, on the plus side, a new study from The Netherlands last month showed that dietary intakes of acrylamide were not linked to cancers of the gastro-intestinal tract.
Acrylamide intake at levels commonly consumed in the diet, were not related to colorectal, gastric, pancreatic, and oesophageal cancer risk, according to findings of a new study with 5,000 participants published in the new issue of the Journal of Nutrition.
Despite being a carcinogen in the science laboratory, many epidemiological studies have reported that everyday exposure to acrylamide in food is too low to be of concern.
The new study, performed by researchers from Maastricht University, used data from 5,000 participants. Dietary intakes were assessed using a 150-item food frequency questionnaire at the start of the study.
After 13 years of follow-up, the researchers had documented 2,190, 563, 349, and 216 cases of colorectal, gastric, pancreatic, and oesophageal cancer, respectively.
The average daily acrylamide intake of all the participants was 21.7mg. None of the cancers were associated with acrylamide intakes, but the researchers noted that some subgroups of participants did exhibit increased risks. Notably obesity and age were associated with increased risks.
"Overall, acrylamide intake was not associated with colorectal, gastric, pancreatic, and oesophageal cancer risk, but some subgroups deserve further attention," concluded the researchers conducting the study.
Despite the growing number of null results from epidemiological studies industry continues to explore ways of removing or reducing the formation of - and the amount of acrylamide in food products.
Successful areas of study have focused predominantly on the precursors to acrylamide, mainly asparagine.
Approaches include converting asparagine 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 the recipe that may promote acrylamide formation.
Food processors and scientists have been constantly trying to come up with ways to lower the acrylamide level in cooked foods and currently available methods that lower the accumulation of this reactive compound have a negative effect on sensory characteristics or are not broadly applicable.
Realising their limited options, several food companies have now committed to substantially reducing the acrylamide levels in fried and baked potato products over the next three years.
A novel method that could be applied to produce the desired low-acrylamide food products was
recently published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.
According to this method, potato plants are transformed with an all-native silencing construct that targets two asparagine synthetase genes.
The resulting plants produce tubers with very low levels of the acrylamide precursor asparagine.
French fries and potato chips from these ‘intragenic' plants contain up to 20-fold lower levels of acrylamide than their untransformed counterparts. Given the important role of processed potato products in the modern Western diet, a replacement of current varieties by the low-asparagine potatoes would reduce the average daily intake of acrylamide by almost one-third.
Slovenian company Vitiva is aiming at a new market for its rosemary-derived anti-oxidants, after tests have shown positive results for the reduction of acrylamide in fried foods. The company says its new angle for its Inolens4 and Synerox4 rosemary extracts could prove timely.
The company says one way in which acrylamide can build up in the cooking process is the Maillard reaction between carbohydrates, free asparaginase, and reduced sugar molecules, which takes place when a food is baked or fried.
The other, it says, is altered fractions of oils and nitrogen containing compounds. The Slovenian company has already established a following for its rosemary ingredients in protecting fats and oils from rancidity and extending shelf-life.
The latest set of tests conducted are said to show that the acrylamide levels in fried foods can be reduced by up to 95 per cent when the extracts are added to the frying oils.
Vitiva CEO Ohad Cohen called the results ‘good news for the food industry' and said,"Our formulations tackle acrylamide formation without any influence on organoleptic characteristics of the frying oil or the final product."
The past year has seen considerable attention to acrylamide-reducing solutions - especially in terms of asparaginase enzymes.
Both DSM and Novozymes have launched enzymes for this purpose, called Preventase and Acrylaway respectively.
The companies have both received regulatory approval in key markets such as Europe and the US, and are progressing towards product roll-out to other parts of the world.
Significantly, the asparaginase option has been included in the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU acrylamide toolkit, which gives the industry a number of potential solutions.
The original toolbox was launched in 2005 and was updated last year. European countries are reporting on the level of acrylamide in foods sold in their markets, but it is said to be too soon to see the full effect of the toolbox on levels of the carcinogen.
Other recent published research in the acrylamide-reducing area has included the role of yeast, and the addition of L-cysteine, glycine and L-lysine.
And this month the US-based Snack Food Association is hosting a one-day conference on acrylamide in Ohio, the United States, that will focus on existing and emerging technologies available to reduce the formation of acrylamide in potato-based snack foods.