Dangerous toxin on rise in baby foods

By Michael Dickison

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

A cancer-causing toxin has been found at uncomfortable levels in common foods such as bread, baby food and fried potatoes.

A major study by the European Union found that the intake of acrylamide, a chemical already classified as being of very high concern, has grown despite food safety efforts.

The study also found that babies face as much as triple the exposure of adults.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority says it is prepared to pressure food manufacturers to bring levels down.

"The safety margin isn't big enough for countries to feel comfortable," said Food Safety Authority principal toxicologist John Reeve.

"If we can get it down, we certainly will. We certainly want to."

The authority last year implemented a code of practice for food manufacturers to reduce acrylamide.

But safe cooking often had a trade-off in taste, Dr Reeve said.

It would be possible to avoid the toxin by eating food raw or boiling everything, but that could become very bland, he said.

"People will tend to avoid it. It's one of those vicious circles that unfortunately exist."

The authority would be testing food products in the country this year to check that manufacturers followed the code of practice.

"We will be having a look at foods again to see if the trends are in the right direction. If not, it's fair to say we will be having a chat."

Firms had an obligation under the Food Act to get toxin levels as low as possible, Dr Reeve said.

The new European study, released by the European Food Safety Authority, found that levels of acrylamide in crisp bread and instant coffee had risen and they had failed to come down in most other food products.

The highest levels of the chemical were found in samples of substitute coffee, at 3mg/kg, and potato crisps, at 4.8mg/kg.

The World Health Organisation has suggested a safe intake level of 0.5mg/kg of body weight for neuropathy, though safe levels for cancer are unknown.

The levels of acrylamide intake among Europeans was also found to have edged higher, particularly among babies and adolescents - though the study warned that it was difficult to measure exposure with certainty.

There are many ways to reduce acrylamide in cooked potatoes, including potato varieties, storage and low-temperature cooking methods.

For cereal-based foods, such as bread, a newly developed enzyme, asparaginase, breaks down precursors and is considered promising.

But there was little hope for coffee, the study said.

Experiments concluded only limited process options were available to reduce acrylamide levels without affecting product quality.

BIGGEST SOURCES OF ACRYLAMIDE

* Fried potatoes
* Bread
* Coffee
* Biscuits
* Potato crisps
* Jarred baby food

WHAT IS IT?

A chemical formed when carbohydrate sugars and asparagine, a protein building block, react at high temperatures.

WHAT EFFECTS CAN IT HAVE?

Studies have linked long-term exposure to cancer and nerve problems.

HOW CAN YOU AVOID IT?

* Cook at lower temperatures - boil all your food.
* Mix dough with an enzyme engineered to break down the toxin's precursors.
* There are few options for coffee.

- NZ Herald

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