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Acrylamide in foods: A serious health risk

20/2002, 03.09.2002

First promising efforts to reduce the levels of this substance

The toxicologist, Dr. Josef Schlatter, describes the acrylamide contamination of foods as a serious health risk. "Even if the consumer has possibly lived with this risk for decades", commented Schlatter at a BgVV expert consultation, the levels would still have to be reduced as quickly as possible to protect consumers. More than 200 representatives of politics, pub-lic authorities, consumer protection associations, science and industry from Germany and abroad attended the meeting "Acrylamide - Serious problem or exaggerated risk" in Berlin on 29 August 2002. The presentations made it clear that it would take some time to find a solution to the problem but that there is already a series of promising approaches to suc-cessively reducing the levels of acrylamide in the meantime.

The substance, acrylamide, became a subject of discussion in April of this year when the Swedish health authority reported on the detection of high acrylamide levels in deep-fried, fried, roasted and baked products and raised a potentially relevant cancer risk for man. In animal experiments acrylamide triggers cancer and damages the genotype. International bodies believe it is likely that this effect will also occur in human beings. In a study involving employees who had been exposed over a longer period to acrylamide, no causal relationship could be detected between the acrylamide contamination and cancer. Given the low num-bers of test persons, however, this study is not sufficiently reliable in order to be able to identify a minor increase in cancer prevalence as a consequence of contamination with acryla-mide. Against this backdrop, the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection, Nutrition and Ag-riculture (BMVEL) asked BgVV back in May to stage the first expert consultation and this marked the beginning of extensive work in the field of analytics and toxicology.

Since then, BgVV together with institutions of the federal Länder and private laboratories, has developed analytical methods which make possible the reliable determination of acrylamide levels. A quality assurance test in which the competence of the laboratories is currently being "calibrated" has produced good initial results and has shown that a series of applied methods produce reliable results. The proficiency test will be concluded in Septem-ber. It is to be expected that sufficient analytical capacities will then be available in order to conduct representative studies for the German market.

By contrast, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to the formation of acrylamide. This substance is formed during the production of starch-containing foods. A nitrogen-containing reaction partner must also be present. Temperature, length of heating, degree of dryness, the composition of the ingredients and, in the case of potatoes, type and storage conditions, seem to play a role alongside other possible factors. It was observed that especially high acrlyamide levels may be reached above all in products with an extensive temperature-induced reduction of their water content, As soon as the influence of these factors has been confirmed, it will be possible to derive technological changes to industrially manufactured. The definitive solution to the acrylamide problem in the industrial area will take some time. However, there are already promising approaches in order to gradually reduce the levels in foods. One specific problem area in conjunction with the formation of acrylamide is the private household. Here, too, critical levels of this high-risk substance can be reached during deep-frying, frying, roasting or baking. Priority must be given to clarifying the importance of individual formation factors in order to enable consumers to avoid high levels of acrylamide in their own kitchens. The same applies to restaurants and mass catering facilities.

The data on the contamination of foods on the German market with acrylamide, presented by the German Agency for Consumer Protection and Food Protection (BVL), stress that chips and crisps are amongst the product groups with the highest levels of contamination. Acryla-mide was also detected (sometimes at far lower levels) in pre-roasted breakfast cereals, biscuits and other snack items as well as in foods produced at high temperatures. In some cases, the values differ considerably between batches and between products from different manufacturers. Investigations of fruit, vegetables and meat have proved negative up to now. In order to gradually reduce the acrylamide levels, BVL together with the federal Länder has agreed a minimisation strategy based on so-called "signal values".

The consumer protectionists called for improved information for the public at large. The representative of the Confederation of Consumer Protection Associations, Ms. Michel-Drees commented that consumers could not wait until the acrylamide problem had been solved. Already today they were entitled to extensive information. Mrs. Michel-Drees appealed to manufacturers to take their responsibility in this area more seriously and to provide a more transparent picture for consumers of the contamination of foods with acrylamide.

We are preparing a comprehensive report of the expert consultation which will be accessible on the Institute's homepage (menu item Events) Most of the presentations and the data from Germany will also be available there.

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