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Food Standard Regulators Turn Up Heat on Acrylamide Threat
by Steve Campbell
In California, coffee shop chains have to post a sign in their stores warning consumers that small amounts of the food contaminant and carcinogen acrylamide are present in several products served on the premises. In Europe, the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union developed an acrylamide-reduction toolbox. The search continues for viable solutions that will have a minimal impact on food sensory values.
Acrylamide is a significant international food safety and quality issue, and preventing its formation is of interest not only to food manufacturers but also to such worldwide health and food safety regulators as the FDA, the European Food Safety Association, and the U.K. Food Standards Agency.Acrylamide is on California’s Proposition 65 list of carcinogenic substances, requiring a warning label on any product that contains high levels of a listed substance. The substance has been added to the European Union’s candidate list of substances of very high concern and, in 2011, member states were requested to monitor acrylamide levels in foodstuffs.
While no regulatory authorities around the world have set allowable limits for acrylamide in food, some food safety authorities have stated their wish to see levels reduced and exposure minimized.
All the regulatory attention paid to acrylamide in recent years is the result of growing global awareness since 2002—the year Swedish scientists first announced their discovery of significant quantities of the carcinogen in a wide variety of baked, fried, and toasted foods. Since then, high concentrations have been confirmed in potato chips, French fries, crisp and certain other bread types, biscuits, breaded food products, cereals (including baby food), and roasted coffee.
Epidemiological Studies Now Coming In
Acrylamide is a WHO Group 2A “probable” carcinogenic compound that forms as a byproduct of high-temperature frying, baking, or roasting (over 120°C or 248°F) either by manufacturers, at restaurants, or at home. Scientists have determined that acrylamide forms specifically as a result of a chemical reaction between the amino acid asparagine—found in most carbohydrate-rich foods—and sugars such as glucose and fructose, and is triggered by higher-temperature cooking as part of the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is responsible for giving many foods and beverages their distinctive and desirable flavors.
Recently, results of an epidemiological study from the Netherlands that analyzed 5,000 people over a 16-year period showed that exposure of 10 µg of acrylamide per day in never-smoking men was associated with a 98 percent increase in the risk of experiencing multiple myeloma. The study concluded: “This is the first epidemiological study to investigate the association between dietary acrylamide intake and the risk of lymphatic malignancies, and more research into these observed associations is warranted.” Earlier studies have shown that in women, exposure to acrylamide is associated with an increased risk of developing endometrial and ovarian cancers. The pressure is mounting on food safety regulators to resolve the acrylamide issue.
Acrylamide Reduction Strategies and Innovations
Over the past few years, the food industry has explored a range of measures to reduce acrylamide levels in end products, including changing cooking processes, recipe, and final preparation; experimenting with temperatures; and using plant breeding to reduce asparagine levels in grain or vegetable raw materials. Another measure widely tested—and is being used in many cases—is the application of the enzyme asaparaginase to convert asparagine into aspartate (another amino acid) and ammonia, with the result that less asparagine is available to be converted into acrylamide upon heat processing. The solution that appears to be the most compelling, however, is a proprietary acrylamide-preventing baker’s yeast technology developed by Functional Technologies Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Functional Technologies Corp. is a world leader in developing yeasts that prevent the formation of naturally occurring contaminants and toxins that either affect food or beverage quality or are classified as contaminants or probable human carcinogens. The company’s acrylamide-preventing yeast technology, Acryleast, accelerates the natural ability of yeast to consume asparagine, the main precursor to the formation of acrylamide, minimizing the formation of acrylamide as a result of a significant reduction in base levels of asparagine.
Bread tests using this acrylamide-preventing baker’s yeast found greatly reduced levels of asparagine in dough, and this correlated with a proportional reduction in acrylamide in bread and toast without changes to industrial baking process or length of cooking time. This yeast solves the acrylamide challenge in baking and may diminish the problem in a wide variety of other foods as well.
The company is now working with many global-scale and regional food manufacturers in various affected sectors to run collaborative testing on Acryleast based on industry manufacturing protocols.
“We’re always mindful that it’s a privilege and a responsibility to be working with large food suppliers and producers in dealing with an undesirable food contaminant that has caught their attention as well as that of the consuming public,” said Howard Louie, chief business development officer of Functional Technologies. “Rigorous testing of our acrylamide-preventing yeasts under a variety of industrial food manufacturing conditions with many partners has delivered exceptional results in many different food products and sectors. Testing in new products and sectors is always being initiated.”
Baked Goods and Bread Testing
Despite their lower acrylamide content, bread, baked products, and cereal-based products are a concern to regulators due to the large amounts of baked goods consumed by the public. Studies have shown that toasting bread can increase acrylamide levels by up to 10 times, increasing the health threat from bread. In the core application of industrial baking, this acrylamide-preventing baker’s yeast can easily and seamlessly replace traditional yeast used in bread manufacturing worldwide, inhibiting the formation of acrylamide in bread and crackers. Industrial testing shows consistent and reliable acrylamide reductions of more than 90% for crackers.
Testing has also found the yeast effective in toast prepared from “no-time” dough and “sponge-and-dough” breads, including wheat flour, grain flour, whole meal, and low-/high-sugar types (Fig. 1). It’s important to note that using this yeast requires no changes in the industrial baking process and results in no discernible difference in product taste or integrity. The accelerated asparagine- consuming trait can be easily transferred to any baker’s yeast strain used commercially today. The widespread adoption of this yeast technology in global markets would immediately eliminate the threat of acrylamide contamination in all breads and baked goods.
Yeast-Using Extruded Products
Testing with collaborating industry partners has occurred in the area of extruded food intermediaries or pellets (potato, corn, wheat, or grain starches) that are further processed into final food products such as cereals, chips, baby foods, crackers, and other snacks. These tests have been carried out under simulated commercial conditions, industrial protocols, and protocols supplied by partners. Acryleast was mixed into the dry materials along with water, and asparagine degradation was found to begin rapidly upon first contact. Reductions were significant, with asparagine reduced to non-detectable levels within 60 minutes (Fig. 2).
Non-Yeast Extruded Food Products
Testing has been conducted in end-user, dough-like applications prepared under simulated commercial conditions, with the end product being extruded food pellets for use in making final starch food products. In these tests, in which baker’s yeasts are not usually employed, Acryleast rapidly and dramatically reduced asparagine levels in fewer than 30 minutes, even at low doses and under various processing conditions (Fig. 3). Louie said he believes the company can optimize the processing parameters even further.
“Yeast is a very robust organism and well-established traditional food processing agent. Our yeast has been extremely efficient at consuming asparagine in every food matrix challenge put before us by our collaboration partners,” he noted.
The company plans to apply its yeast technology to reduce the formation of acrylamide during potato processing. These products present more of a challenge, but preliminary testing results have been favorable. “Our results in other areas provide strong support that industrial potato-processing protocols will be able to benefit from our Acryleast technology,” said John Husnik, PhD, chief technology and innovations officer and a senior scientist with Functional Technologies.
All the regulatory attention paid to acrylamide in recent years is the result of growing global awareness since 2002.
Government Regulations on the Horizon?
While no regulatory authorities around the world have limited acrylamide content in food, some food safety authorities have stated their wish to see levels reduced and exposure minimized. As long-term epidemiological studies continue to emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that governments want this issue resolved.
Industry observers know the risks involved in delay. As Martin Turton of the member services division of the U.K. Food and Drink Federation told British Baker magazine this past February, “FDF members are acting on acrylamide, but the specter of regulation hangs over the industry.”
Clearly, industry leaders are focused on finding viable solutions to offset any risk to brand equity and revenue associated with acrylamide.
With continued rumblings from the regulators to reduce levels in advance of setting specific guidance levels for reduction, an effective, seamless solution would be very timely. Thankfully, 10 years after the acrylamide food contamination challenge first surfaced, a yeast-based solution appears to be at hand. And, with the heat rapidly being turned up on the acrylamide issue, the Acryleast technology comes just in the nick of time.
Steve Campbell writes for and about food ingredients and technologies companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.