The FSA has published the results from its latest study looking at levels of the process contaminants acrylamide and furan in a wide range of UK retail foods.The levels of acrylamide and furan reported do not increase concern about the risk to human health and the Agency has not changed its advice to consumers.
Furan is found in heat-treated commercial foods and it is produced through thermal degradation of natural food constituents. Notably, it can be found in roasted coffee, instant coffee, and processed baby foods. Exposure to furan at doses about 2000 times the projected level of human exposure from foods increases the risk of hepatocellular tumors in rats and mice and bile duct tumors in rats. The presence of furan in food is a potential concern because of indications of liver toxicity, including carcinogenicity, in experimental animals that were exposed to furan in their diet over a lifetime. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified furan as possibly carcinogenic for humans.
United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) identified low levels of furan in a wider variety of foods than previously reported, most notably in foods that undergo thermal treatment such as canning or jarring. This discovery resulted from the development of a new analytical method that can detect very low concentrations of furan and be applied to a wide variety of foods. In response to the FDA's discovery, Health Canada and other international jurisdictions began researching how furan forms and what levels are present in foods, as well as the hazard that furan may pose to human health.
The Food Directorate of Health Canada has analyzed more than 200 samples of foods, including over 20 samples of baby food, that are found on the Canadian market for furan and some of its derivatives (2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran). Foods contributing most to Canadian exposure are: coffee (adults); meat-containing soups, stews, and chili (adults and children); and canned pasta (adults and children). Health Canada will use these new data to further refine its furan dietary intake estimates and also to conduct more targeted surveillance of furan in foods.
Although there is evidence that furan levels can be reduced in some foods through volatilization (evaporation) during cooking (e.g. warming and stirring canned or jarred foods in an open saucepan), there is currently a lack of quantitative data for all foods. No information is available on other potential methods of mitigating dietary exposure to furan.
In addition, Health Canada continues to conduct toxicological studies in laboratory animals in order to better understand the potential human health risks posed by the low levels of furan and its derivatives that humans are exposed to through the diet. While some effects related to liver toxicity in experimental animals have been observed at relatively low doses, current dietary intake estimations are considerably lower than these levels. Ongoing research by Health Canada scientists will further attempt to define the nature of the dose-response relationship with respect to toxic effects in experimental animals and the relevance to human health.
Health Canada is also aware that there is extensive research currently underway around the world to better define the potential risks to humans from furan in foods.
Health Canada is also of the opinion that furan may represent a safety concern and that there is a need for further research before the risk posed by furan in foods can be fully understood.
Cutting down on certain fried foods can also help you cut down on the amount of acrylamide you eat. That's a good thing because high levels of acrylamide have been found to cause cancer in animals, and on that basis scientists believe it is likely to cause cancer in humans as well.
FDA chemist Lauren Robin explains that acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods—mainly plant-based foods—during high-temperature cooking processes like frying and baking. These include potatoes, cereals, coffee, crackers or breads, dried fruits and many other foods. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, acrylamide is found in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the average American diet.
While acrylamide has probably been around as long as people have been baking, roasting, toasting or frying foods, it was only in 2002 that scientists first discovered the chemical in food. Since then, the FDA has been actively investigating the effects of acrylamide as well as potential measures to reduce it. Today, the FDA posts a draft document with practical strategies to help growers, manufacturers and foodservice operators lower the amount of acrylamide in foods associated with higher levels of the chemical.
In addition, there are a number of steps you and your family can take to cut down on the amount of acrylamide in the foods you eat.
Acrylamide forms from sugars and an amino acid that are naturally present in food. It does not form, or forms at lower levels, in dairy, meat and fish products. The formation occurs when foods are cooked at home and in restaurants as well as when they are made commercially.
"Generally speaking, acrylamide is more likely to accumulate when cooking is done for longer periods or at higher temperatures," Robin says. Boiling and steaming foods do not typically form acrylamide.
Tips for Cutting Down on Acrylamide
Given the widespread presence of acrylamide in foods, it isn't feasible to completely eliminate acrylamide from one's diet, Robin says. Nor is it necessary. Removing any one or two foods from your diet would not have a significant effect on overall exposure to acrylamide.
However, here are some steps you can take to help decrease the amount of acrylamide that you and your family consume:
- Frying causes acrylamide formation. If frying frozen fries, follow manufacturers' recommendations on time and temperature and avoid overcooking, heavy crisping or burning.
- Toast bread to a light brown color rather than a dark brown color. Avoid very brown areas.
- Cook cut potato products such as frozen french fries to a golden yellow color rather than a brown color. Brown areas tend to contain more acrylamide.
- Do not store potatoes in the refrigerator, which can increase acrylamide during cooking. Keep potatoes outside the refrigerator in a dark, cool place, such as a closet or a pantry.
FDA also recommends that you adopt a healthy eating plan, consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including:
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk products.
- Include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts.
- Choose foods low in saturated fats, trans fat (which both raises your bad LDL cholesterol and lowers your good HDL cholesterol and is linked to heart attacks), cholesterol, salt and added sugars.
This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.