Editor’s Letter: May 2017
By Brian Hartz
Is acrylamide the next major front in the nutrition wars?
A chemical compound first discovered in 2002, acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. It’s commonly found in high-carb, starchy foods like potato chips, french fries, and, unfortunately, baked goods – crisp bread and crackers, in particular.
The carcinogen is caused by the heating up of food, such as when bread is toasted. It’s also present in fried foods, coffee, and some varieties of baby food.
The real kicker is that a recent U.K. Food Standards Agency study found that the risk of cancer from acrylamide exposure is three times higher in young children than in adults, and as we are all well aware, fried and baked foods are often heavily marketed to kids.
Bakers Journal columnist John Michaelides has written extensively about acrylamide and its causes and effects (or lack thereof). In his Technical Talk column in our January/February 2015 issue, he cited a study by the Food Institute in Denmark that “found a slight correlation between breast cancer and dietary acrylamide intake but concluded that more extensive research is needed to conclusively interpret these findings.”
Michaelides’ concerns about acrylamide don’t seem to be echoed strongly in Canada just yet, but across the pond, it’s a different story. In Belgium and the U.K., consumer watchdog groups are taking food makers to task for selling products that contain acrylamide levels in excess of European Union benchmarks (of course, thanks to Brexit, Britons won’t have to worry about continental standards much longer, but that’s an entirely different topic).
One of these groups, Changing Markets, found that 15 per cent of the Brussels, Belgium, establishments it surveyed were selling potato fries with acrylamide levels as high as six times the EU benchmark. In a Feb. 23 news release, the group called for “a robust legal framework that sets ambitious legally binding limits for acrylamide in food to ensure that business operators make real efforts to reduce its presence.”
In the U.K., Changing Markets – in collaboration with SumOfUs, another consumer watchdog organization – cast a critical eye toward makers of cookies marketed to children, particularly the well-known brands Little Dish and Ella’s Kitchen. Its analysis of nearly 50 cookie products found that 10 per cent contained acrylamide levels that topped EU standards.
“While it is important not to burn your toast … we mustn’t forget that acrylamide exposure from home-cooked food is considered relatively small when compared with industrially or restaurant-prepared foods,” said SumOfUs senior campaigner Nabil Berbour.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have a joint expert committee on food additives that has expressed concern about dietary exposure to acrylamide, and the European Commission and Member States are considering a legislative proposal on acrylamide in food that’s set to go to a vote in June. In terms of regulatory change, Health Canada seems to be sitting on the sidelines for now, though in 2009 it implemented an acrylamide monitoring program and its scientists have been studying the properties of the chemical compound.
Acrylamide might not be garnering ink and headlines in the same way as, say, trans fats, gluten or sugar, but it’s a topic to keep an eye on. You never know what nutrition trend consumers are going to support with their pocketbooks.
Happy reading and baking,