No conclusive link has been established between acrylamide levels and cancer in humans, but many in the industry still believe potato varieties low in the chemical are needed. By Marc Zienkiewicz with files from Lukie Pieterse.
Despite another recent study showing no firm link between levels of dietary acrylamide in food and cancer in human beings, efforts continue in order to find new potato varieties that will produce minimal amounts of the chemical when cooked.
“I won’t say acrylamide isn’t important anymore. It’s a trait that processors should continue to look at,” says Zenaida Ganga, crop specialist with Cavendish Farms – Research Division in Prince Edward Island. The company produces frozen french fries, hash browns and potato wedges.
Cavendish Farms has gone the way of other companies such as J.R. Simplot in identifying new potato varieties designed to be low in acrylamide, and hasn’t been deterred from doing so, even though a conclusive link between acrylamide and human cancer has been elusive.
That’s because the industry has discovered the low-acrylamide varieties it’s been looking at since the early 2000’s possess other desirable traits of value to end users, according to Doug Cole, director of marketing and communications for Simplot Plant Sciences, a division of J.R. Simplot. Simplot is the company behind Innate, the low-acrylamide genetically modified potato approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015.
Cancer Link Elusive
In April 2002, a team of Swedish scientists announced the discovery of significant quantities of the chemical compound acrylamide in a variety of baked, fried and toasted foods — in particular, potato chips and french fries.
Acrylamide, which has been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals, can form in some foods during high-temperature (over 121 C) cooking processes, such as baking, toasting or frying, from naturally occurring sugars and the amino acid asparagine.
In June of 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, which has classified acrylamide as a probable human carcinogen, established an international network on acrylamide in food. The network’s aim is to “allow all interested parties to share relevant data as well as information on ongoing investigations.”
Since then, countries around the world have developed guidelines and recommendations regarding dietary acrylamide. Health Canada has initiated a call for data and is actively seeking submissions of published and unpublished technical information on the occurrence of acrylamide in foods available for sale in Canada.
Still, Health Canada currently has no recommended intake level for dietary acrylamide, but recommends on its website that Canadians keep their exposure to acrylamide from food sources “as low as possible.”
Since 2002, studies looking for a conclusive link between acrylamide and cancer in humans have come up empty-handed. The European Food Safety Authority has determined that, in its opinion, average levels of dietary acrylamide seen in most foods are “not of concern.” The FDA says reducing acrylamide in foods “may mitigate potential human health risks from exposure to acrylamide,” but the organization does not identify any specific maximum recommended level for acrylamide.
Recently, researchers in Italy found “no meaningful link” between dietary acrylamide and most human cancers. Titled “Dietary acrylamide and cancer risk: an updated meta-analysis,” the researchers found what they term a “borderline” association between acrylamide and kidney cancer in humans, but concluded that the debate on the potential carcinogenic effect of dietary acrylamide is still open.
“The first studies from back in 2002 were problematic in their findings, and that’s what started all this,” says Stanley Omaye, a nutritionist and toxicologist at the University of Nevada who has long been skeptical of concerns over dietary acrylamide.
“We’ve been eating these things for a long time, and as we look into it further we find them in pretty much everything — but where’s the human data? By now we should have seen something, and we haven’t. It’s another example of how laboratory animals tell us one thing when they’re exposed at very high doses, but it’s not applicable to a human situation,” says Omaye.
In 2002, when the initial Swedish study results were published and media coverage and public concern over acrylamide was sparked, industry efforts to develop low-acrylamide potato varieties went into high gear.
Around that time, Simplot began development of its Innate variety, now available in the U.S. and expected to hit the Canadian market in 2016 pending regulatory approvals. Innate is low in asparagine, which reduces the potential for the formation of acrylamide by up to 70 per cent when the potato is cooked at high temperatures.
“Early on in its development, we looked at acrylamide as a potential issue in the potato industry. At the time, when the Swedish study results came out, it seemed like the sky was falling,” says Cole.
“Since then, acrylamide has been listed as a probable human carcinogen by several health organizations, but to date there hasn’t been any credible research proving a direct link so we’ve shifted the majority of our energy on low black spot bruise.”
Cole notes that black spot bruise is the No. 1 consumer complaint regarding fresh potatoes in the U.S. Caused when potatoes are jostled during harvest or bruised during storage, black spot bruise appears as a dark spot inside or on a potato.
“In a bad weather year it can cause losses upwards of $400 dollars an acre,” Cole adds. “Those potatoes can’t be packed out and sold in the fresh potato market.”
Innate is less prone to pressure bruising during storage, and also will not turn brown after it is cut during preparation. It also has the benefit of being lower in sugar, which, under certain conditions, provides it with a consistent golden color — providing ideal taste and texture qualities for consumers, Cole says.
“With Innate potatoes, consumers will get more of what they pay for because they’ll discard fewer potatoes. These potatoes also have significant advantages in the food service market — restaurants can peel and cut them hours in advance,” says Cole.
He adds that although it features those other desirable traits that the company is focusing on in its marketing efforts, Innate is still an ideal potato for consumers who might wish to lower their acrylamide intake.
“When Innate was developed, acrylamide was potentially a big issue. Even though it looks like it’s not having the impact we thought it could have, it’s certainly a benefit for some consumers who wish to lower their exposure to acrylamide.”
Simplot has developed a second-generation Innate potato, which adds late blight resistance and cold-storage capability and is currently moving through the regulatory process.
Early on … we looked at acrylamide as a potential issue in the potato industry. At the time, when the Swedish study results came out, it seemed like the sky was falling.
– Doug Cole
Catering to Consumers
Ganga of Cavendish Farms agrees that creating new low-acrylamide varieties to satisfy consumer concerns is important. The company is part of the National Fry Processing Trials (NFPT) Project, managed by the U.S. Potato Board with industry collaboration to identify potato germplasm with low reducing sugar/acrylamide accumulation potential after storage. It’s currently in its fourth year.
“The program results have been very good — it’s been able to identify new varieties with very low acrylamide,” Ganga says. “The nice thing is that low acrylamide is correlated with low reducing sugar, which is related to fry quality. We always look for the best fry quality, which means looking for varieties with lower reducing sugar. When you control the sugar, you indirectly control acrylamide as well.”
Despite no conclusive link yet to be found between acrylamide and human cancer, Ganga says those consumers looking to lower their exposure to it can be served through new varieties like those identified by the NFPT Project.“I believe it’s a good thing to still be working on. People are becoming more health conscious, and they want their food to be as healthy as possible,” she says.
Example of varieties identified by the NFPT Project with low acrylamide content include Easton, a long potato with netted to lightly russeted skin, and Dakota Russet, which needs no soaking or blanching and requires less cooking time; both varieties have good fry colors.