Acrylamide, a chemical known to cause cancer, is increasingly found at dangerous levels in manufactured foods, leading NGOs to call for stringent regulations.
Acrylamide has been a serious concern since 2002, when scientists discovered it in many common products. The substance forms during frying, roasting, broiling, toasting or baking that results in browning. In general, foods cooked to darker colours have higher acrylamide levels.
Last year, the FDA issued recommendations to consumers for reducing their exposure to acrylamide-tainted foods; however, more and more onlookers in the scientific community are suggesting that the onus of protecting the public should fall on manufacturers.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated in June 2015 that acrylamide is a “public health concern as it potentially increases the risk of developing cancer in consumers of all ages” with particular risk to young children – given their smaller size (and the types of foods they consume), they typically take in twice as much acrylamide per pound of body weight compared to adults.
Acrylamide is also categorised as an “extremely hazardous substance” by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Nearly one in five of potato crisp varieties sampled from major retail food outlets in the UK have high levels of acrylamide, according to Changing Markets Foundation, which reviewed 92 UK potato snack brands.
A sample from major crisp brand Tyrrells had the highest level of acrylamide, at 2.5 times above the European benchmark and more than 83 times higher than products with the lowest concentration.
Just a month earlier than these findings, the same research and campaign company found that 10% of biscuits for infants and young children surveyed in the UK contained high levels of acrylamide. The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) found similar results in its own investigation of 29 products.
Germany has also been experiencing problems with the substance; last winter, Changing Markets found concentrations of acrylamide in gingerbread to be significantly higher than EU guidance.
This followed warnings issued during the Christmas period by the Norwegian Consumer Council, who criticised Norwegian manufacturers' use of ammonium bicarbonate as a raising agent; the substance is “well-known” to include acrylamide.
Croatia and Hungary have had to recall baby biscuits; Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria tell a similar story; and high levels have also been found in Belgian “french fries” sold in its capital, Brussels.
In the USA
Independent testing commissioned by the US national health watchdog, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), found high levels of acrylamide in animal crackers targeted at children. Children who eat just one and a half boxes of Walgreens animal crackers a year would exceed the annual safety standard for acrylamide exposure under California law.
In February, CEH reached a legal agreement with Cornfields, a leading private label snack food maker, requiring the company to significantly reduce the levels of acrylamide in its products. It has also issued warnings on seven other animal crackers by various manufactures and eight brands of gingerbread (out of the 17 examined).
The UK's Snack, Nut and Crisp Manufacturers Association (SNACMA) took issue with Changing Markets' claim that “food operators are still unaware of acrylamide or unwilling to take measures to reduce the levels due to a lack of mandatory legal limits.” As there are no legal limits, it is difficult to consistently regulate levels and experts tend to agree that acrylamide does not need to be, or perhaps cannot be, removed entirely from products.
SNACMA also said the Changing Markets findings did not represent the entirety of the crisp industry, only a proportion. A 2013 report on crisp samples across European countries noted a downward trend in acrylamide levels since 2011.
However, these findings have not been re-examined in the past few years and no comment or analysis has explained or examined the more recent acrylamide scares.
Nabil Berbour is a senior campaigner at SumOfUs, a global consumer watchdog whose petition asking the EU Commission to set legally binding maximum levels of acrylamide in food has gathered more than 229,000 signatures. He felt that the FSA failed to pin down manufacturers, instead focusing too much on avoiding acrylamide in home food preparation.
“We mustn't forget that acrylamide exposure from home-cooked food is considered relatively small when compared with industrially or restaurant-prepared foods,” he said.
“European legislators cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the wealth of data showing that high levels of acrylamide in every day products like crisps and baby foods continue to put consumers’ health at risk,” said Nusa Urbancic of Changing Markets.
“Industrially prepared food is the biggest source of consumer exposure to this carcinogen.”
Germany is the only country thus far to have adopted a formal scheme for reducing the presence of acrylamide in foods; the European Commission will consider adopting binding measures in October 2017.