Acrylamide: No more research needed | © p.studio66 @ Shutterstock

Acrylamide: No more research needed

Commission can take action

What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a chemical substance produced in certain foods during preparation or manufacture, usually during heating. Research revealed that especially fried and roasted potato products as well as cereal and coffee products contain acrylamide.

IARC classified acrylamide as probably carcinogenic in 1994. This means that there is no evidence for humans, but the way in which the substance leads to the development of tumours in animal experiments leaves experts in no doubt that it also has a carcinogenic effect in humans. It is undisputed that acrylamide has a neurotoxic effect and can irreversibly and adversely affect the genetic material of cells.

Even experts have only known since the beginning of the millennium that certain foods contain acrylamide. Tareke et al. first published this finding in 2000 (Acrylamide: A Cooking Carcinogen? In: Chem. Res. Toxicol, Vol. 13, Vol. 6, 517-522). However, no one noticed this publication. Only a press conference in April 2002 attracted public attention, in which the Swedish Food Authority announced new results, which Tareke et al. published shortly afterwards in a scientific journal (Analysis of acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in heatedstuffs food. In: J Agric Food Chem, vol. 50, issue 17, 4998-5006).

Research Findings

Since then, much research has been done to (even) better assess the risk of acrylamide and to be able to reduce the contents in food. Authorities published five risk assessments, all of which conclude that exposure to acrylamide is of concern. The difference between the average dose humans take in through food is considered to be too small compared to the dose that significantly more frequently leads to cancer in animal experiments. This gap is for no other carcinogen in food as low as for acrylamide.

Although the preconditions for applying the precautionary principle are undoubtedly met, worldwide hardly any measures have been taken to reduce the acrylamide content in foodstuffs. Associations of food manufacturers and authorities published numerous recommendations on what to consider in the production or preparation of critical products, but there is no evidence that acrylamide levels have actually decreased (most recently EFSA: Scientific Opinion on acrylamide in food, 2015).

Will the Commission push for a reduction in acrylamide levels?

In December 2012, the EU Commission asked EFSA for a new risk assessment. Finally, in the summer of 2015, EFSA published a work of several hundred pages, the message of which hardly goes beyond the facts known so far: the presence of acrylamide in food is worrying. However, almost 15 years after the discovery of acrylamide in food, EFSA recommends further research, e.g. on toxicological issues and exposure. This puts the ball back in the court of the EU Commission. Will the Commission decide to enforce a binding reduction in acrylamide content? That would be a great success for consumer health protection. Or will the Commission rather wait for further research results? Then it is unlikely that Europe will introduce any measures in the foreseeable future.

Dr. Sabine Bonneck