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Adela López de Cerain Salsamendi, Professor of Toxicology, University of Navarra, Spain
Acrylamide: the keys to an old substance "under suspicion".
Last April 11, a new European Union regulation came into force establishing measures to reduce the presence of acrylamide in food. Warnings about this substance - present in a large number of products such as potato chips, baked breads or coffee - have reached the media after it became known that it has a probable carcinogenic effect (it increases the probability of suffering cancer) and genotoxic (it is capable of modifying our DNA).
However, academic community 's suspicions about this compound go back a long way. In the early 1980s, the main concern with acrylamide was to protect the workers of the companies that produced it, since this compound had been used in industry since the mid-1950s in areas as diverse as wastewater treatment, paper manufacturing or in molecular biology laboratories, such as polyacrylamide gels. In the 1980s, programs of study became aware of the neurotoxic effects of this substance and warned of its carcinogenic effect in experimental animals. programs of study Subsequently, in 1994, the first epidemiological studies were published on the population of workers exposed to acrylamide over a number of years, as well as others relating to toxicity. research At that time, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), under the WHO, conducted a re-assessment and concluded that acrylamide could be classified as a "possible human carcinogen". Furthermore, in view of the programs of study conducted, the agency considered that this compound had been shown to be genotoxic, i.e. it could damage DNA.
This led to the establishment of legal limits for acrylamide in food. But these limits were extraordinarily low - 10 micrograms per kilogram of food - and were set to protect the consumer from the possibility of this contaminant passing into food from plastic or paper packaging that had been manufactured using employee acrylamide.
2002 was a watershed year. That year the Swedish National Food Authority published a work exposing how acrylamide - already a known carcinogen in experimental animals - was found in large quantities in some starchy foods. These molecules were generated when certain foods were cooked at high temperatures (above 120°C), fried or baked. Based on this study, the UK and Norwegian food agencies undertook similar programs of study to verify the Swedish findings. And the results they obtained were similar.
The Swedish study -and subsequent programs of study - were very relevant because they found very high levels of acrylamide -from 300 to even 12,000 micrograms per kilogram- in samples of the overcooked foods themselves.All this led to a major food alert that pushed the research to determine in which foods acrylamide could be produced, by what mechanisms, under what conditions and how its production could be reduced. With the emerging findings, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a scientific opinion in 2015 concluding that acrylamide is formed from asparagine and sugars. Both components occur naturally in some foods when they are processed at temperatures generally above 120°C and with low humidity. It also stated that the foods with the highest levels are, again, potato chips (excluding crisps and snacks) and coffee (soluble). Nevertheless, and in the absence of scientific evidence on the association between exhibition to acrylamide and cancer in humans, this report assured that the estimates of exhibition human could be considered safe for non-carcinogenic toxic effects, although there is some concern regarding its carcinogenic effects.
The conclusions of the work of research have served to design a regulation to be applied throughout the European Union (EU Regulation 2017/2158 of the Commission, which entered into force this April) and which establishes a series of good practices to reduce the presence of acrylamide. These measures do not affect the quality, nor the microbial safety of the product, but oblige companies to adopt these practices, to take their own samples and to exercise control to verify that the maximum levels for each subject of food are not exceeded.
In the end, the acrylamide case serves to confirm, once again, the good functioning of food alerts in the EU. It is also evidence of the importance of investing in research, as without the right knowledge risk assessments cannot be developed based on objective data . The challenge now falls on the companies, who are the first interested in improving the safety of food products without a decrease in quality, but as a guarantee of protection and health for consumers.