Acrylamide is causing concern in the industry, but there may be hope on the horizon in the form of new acrylamide-preventing technologies.
The term “acrylamide” has been showing up in mass media reports since 2002. Dietary acrylamide has become an area of concern for consumers, the food industry and regulators due to its carcinogenic potential for humans. What is acrylamide, how did it become such a hot topic of discussion, and are there any solutions for the supposed health risks that it poses?
The potato industry has reason to be concerned about acrylamide. In April 2002, a team of Swedish scientists announced the discovery of significant quantities of this chemical compound in a variety of baked, fried and toasted foods—in particular, potato chips and french fries. In June of that year, 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.”
Acrylamide 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. This is part of the Maillard reaction, or browning reaction, and research to date indicates that carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes and cereal foods are particularly susceptible to acrylamide formation.
While significant above-average acrylamide intake has been found to produce cancer in laboratory rats, scientists are just beginning to associate cancer risks with exposure to dietary acrylamide. And while no regulatory authorities around the world have yet set a limit for the quantity of allowable acrylamide in food, many have stated that they wish to see the dietary intake of acrylamide reduced.
It is becoming increasingly clear that solutions must be found to reduce the formation and level of acrylamide in processed food. The acrylamide “scare,” together with other challenges, such as the popularity of low-carb diets, is having a negative impact on the image of potatoes among consumers, and the potato industry has been working hard to counteract a decline in potato consumption.
Dedicated research efforts are ongoing within the potato industry around the world to find solutions for the possible reduction of acrylamide formation via improvements of the raw product. Selecting potato varieties with naturally low levels of sugar for potato chips helps control the formation of acrylamide when they are processed; also, decreased bruising of raw potatoes before processing appears to have positive results.
Several commercial companies in different countries have invested in research initiatives to find product solutions to counter acrylamide formation in the potato-processing industry.
One such company is Functional Technologies Corporation, a Canadian company based in Vancouver. Functional Technologies specializes in developing product solutions which prevent the formation of naturally-occurring toxins and contaminants that either affect final product quality, or are classified by the World Health Organization as probable human carcinogens. The company has developed a proprietary acrylamide-preventing yeast technology platform, Acryleast, for application in the processed potato industry.
According to industry literature, methods that can help counter the formation of acrylamide include changing cooking time and/or cooking temperature; however, these methods are considered less effective than Acryleast, and potentially compromise the sensory characteristics of the final product.
In essence, the Acryleast product accelerates the natural ability of yeast to consume asparagine, thereby preventing the formation of acrylamide during potato processing. Functional Technologies is working to validate and maximize the performance of Acryleast in various processing protocols for potato foods and snacks, including battered products.
“We are always mindful that it is a privilege and a responsibility to be working with large food suppliers and producers in dealing with an undesirable food attribute that has caught their attention as well as the consuming public’s,” says Howard Louie, chief business development officer of Functional Technologies. “The adherence to our mandate of producing a highly efficacious product while allowing the yeast to function as it would naturally function, but with increased performance, has been a challenge that our technical team has more than met, as evidenced by the stellar test results we have experienced and published,” he says.
Trials with baked goods and snack foods conducted in both North America and Europe with Functional Technologies’ acrylamide-preventing yeasts have demonstrated up to 95 per cent asparagine and/or acrylamide reduction. “These results provide strong support that industrial potato-processing protocols will be able to benefit from our Acryleast platform,” says John Husnik, senior scientist at Functional Technologies.
Scientists, industry, and government continue to investigate the possible effects of acrylamide in food and to search for solutions. But potato industry members should also stay vigilant, monitoring potential market impacts and actively collaborating on solutions for the industry.