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Acrylamide levels in food should be reduced because of public health concern says UN expert committee

Joint note for the media WHO/FAO

A summary report released today by a Joint Expert Committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that the unintentional contaminant acrylamide in certain foods may be of public health concern since it has been shown to cause cancer in animals. The report, by a committee of 35 experts from 15 countries, called for continued efforts to reduce acrylamide in food.

The neurotoxicity of acrylamide in humans is known from instances of high occupational and accidental exposure when acrylamide is used in industrial processes in the production of plastics and materials. Studies in animals have also shown that acrylamide causes reproductive problems and cancer.

Acrylamide formed in some foods by high cooking temperatures

In 2002, Swedish studies showed for the first time the unintentional formation of relatively high levels of acrylamide during the frying or baking of potatoes and cereal products (at temperatures higher than 120 °C). This caused public health concerns, though the health impact of acrylamide levels in foods was uncertain. In the wake of the Swedish study, a special expert consultation was held by FAO and WHO in 2002 to review available data. The experts concluded at that time that a number of additional studies were necessary in order to fully evaluate the toxicity and health impact of acrylamide exposure through foods.

Committee calls for further evaluation following conclusion of on-going studies

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (JECFA) met from 8 – 17 February to consider the possible health risks associated with acrylamide and five other food contaminants. The Committee concluded that, on the basis of the tests in animals, cancer was the most important toxic effect of acrylamide and that consumption of foods with this contaminant at current levels of occurrence may be a public health concern. The conclusion was based on a conservative evaluation, according to the committee, which noted that there is still considerable uncertainty about the mechanism of the toxicity of acrylamide, assumptions used to compare the most relevant animal data to the human situation, and extrapolation of the intake assessments.

Acrylamide is formed when certain foods, particularly plant-based foods that are rich in carbohydrates and low in protein, are cooked at high temperatures such as in frying, roasting or baking, generally at temperatures higher that 120 degrees Celsius. The major foods contributing to acrylamide exposure in countries for which data were available are potato chips and crisps, coffee and cereal-based products (pastries and sweet biscuits, breads, rolls and toast).

The amount of acrylamide can vary dramatically in the same foods depending on several factors, including cooking temperature and time. Because of this, JECFA experts said that it was not possible to issue recommendations on how much of any specific food containing the substance is safe to eat.

Food industry seeking ways to lower acrylamide levels in food

JECFA noted that the food industry has reported that it is evaluating means to reduce acrylamide levels in various foods. The Committee recommended that efforts to reduce acrylamide concentrations in foods continue. The experts also cautioned that major changes in food processing methods to reduce the levels of acrylamide would need to be checked for nutritional quality and safety, including microbiological contamination, and the possible formation of other undesirable chemicals. Consumer acceptability also has to be considered.

JECFA finally recommended that acrylamide be re-evaluated when results of on-going toxicological studies become available. Results from the most relevant long-term studies are expected to be available in two to three years time and these studies may help in reducing the uncertainty in the current risk assessment.

Based on this evaluation FAO and WHO recommend that efforts to reduce acrylamide levels in foodstuffs should continue. National food safety authorities should urge relevant food industries to work towards improving food preparation technologies that lower significantly the acrylamide content in critical foods, particularly potato chips and crisps (French fries and potato chips, respectively), coffee, pastries, sweet biscuits (cookies), breads, rolls and toasts.

Preliminary investigations by industry and other researchers seem to suggest that significant reductions are currently feasible in several foods. The knowledge gained should help in developing guidance for home-prepared foods. Moreover, the latest information available on acrylamide reinforces general advice on healthy eating. Consumers should continue to eat balanced and varied diets, which include plenty of fruit and vegetables, and to moderate their consumption of fried and fatty foods.

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For more information contact:

Ms Christine McNab
Communications Officer
Director-General’s Office - WHO
Telephone: +41 22 791 4688
Mobile phone: +41 79 254 6815
E-mail: mcnabc@who.int

Dr Fadéla Chaib
Director-General’s Office/Media and Communications
WHO/Geneva
Telephone: +41 22 791 3228
Mobile phone: +41 79 477 1738
E-mail: chaibf@who.int

Mr John Riddle
Information Officer
Food and Agriculture Organization
Harare, Zimbabwe
Telephone: +39 348 257 2921
E-mail: john.riddle@fao.org

Summary report

Sixty-fourth meeting, 8–17 February 2005