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New research shows extent of concern around acrylamide

New research has shown the extent of consumer concern around acrylamide – the possible carcinogen found in many baked and toasted goods – even as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to push for an exemption for coffee from California’s Prop-65 laws.

Ingredients company DSM surveyed consumers in France, Germany, the UK and the US. Its research found that, of those consumers who were aware of acrylamide, 70% were concerned by its potential health effects.

As for the proportion of consumers who knew about acrylamide, that varied from 54% of people in Germany to an average of just 12% in France, the UK, and the US.

The research comes amid greater regulatory pressure, with European manufacturers having to take reasonable steps to mitigate the amount of acrylamide in their products since April this year. In the US, a judge in the state of California has also ruled that coffee must carry a cancer warning in line with Proposition 65 – the continent’s only notable piece of acrylamide legislation – which requires potentially carcinogenic substances to be disclosed to consumers.

DSM’s latest research, which shows that acrylamide is a major issue for today’s consumer, undermines the FDA’s position that coffee should be exempt from the requirements of Prop-65.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said: “Part of our mission in this space means ensuring that food product labelling doesn’t contain false or misleading statements about safety or nutrition. This includes statements that food manufacturers make on their own initiative. But it also includes statements that may be compelled under state law.

“Simply put, if a state law purports to require food labeling to include a false or misleading statement, the FDA may decide to step in.”

Gottlieb said that this was the cause of concern with acrylamide, adding that “requiring a cancer warning on coffee, based on the presence of acrylamide, would be more likely to mislead consumers than to inform them”. The FDA’s position flies in the face of generally accepted insight into consumer sentiment regarding acrylamide in their food, and in particular this latest research conducted by DSM.

The US is one of the world’s most prolific consumers of coffee, with 64% of Americans saying they had consumed coffee on a daily basis according to a recent survey commissioned by the National Coffee Association (NCA).

Speaking about its research results, DSM business director for baking Fokke van den Berg said: “While acrylamide is still relatively ‘under the radar’ for many consumers, the topic is quickly gaining attention through major media outlets in the US and Europe. Our research shows that once consumers are informed about acrylamide, they want manufacturers – more than regulators – to take action to reduce acrylamide levels.”


What is acrylamide, and where does it occur?

Essentially, acrylamide is a by-product of the cooking process used in the production of a variety of foods including baked, fried, roasted or toasted bread; snack products like potato chips; and some other products such as coffee.

Any food that contains the naturally occurring amino acid asparagine and reducing sugars (carbohydrates) will yield acrylamide when heated to temperatures above 120°C. Fried potato products like fries, potato chips and hash browns have been found to contain the most acrylamide while toasted bread can have up to ten times as much acrylamide as untoasted bread.

Acrylamide is a suspected carcinogen in humans and a proven carcinogen in rats, and poses severe health risks – especially for children, whose diets tend to be more heavily weighted towards bread, cereals and potato-based snacks than that of adults.

What is the regulatory environment like in North America?

Generally more lenient than in Europe, particularly since the introduction of EU-wide legislation governing manufacturers’ responsibility to actively mitigate the amount of acrylamide in their products. Proposition 65 is the only notable piece of legislation on the continent, and that more generally deals with known or likely carcinogens being present in food.

The recent ruling by a California judge that coffee must come with a cancer warning, because it produces acrylamide, has been seen as Prop-65 gaining a firmer stranglehold on processed foods. Yet FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has publicly stated that his department is opposed to the controversial plans.

Prop-65 has led to a number of lawsuits against manufacturers who fail to disclose the acrylamide content of their products, including a notable case brought by the consumer watchdog group CERT against a number of potato chip and snack food manufacturers. Part of that settlement included making best efforts to reduce the level of acrylamide in the products, but it remains unclear how much progress the snack companies have made towards this end.

Indeed, in much of the US and Canada, there is little regulatory impetus to reduce the quantities of acrylamide present in bakery and snack food products.

Americans love their coffee, and it is possible that cracking down on coffee might become a bit of an own goal in terms of effectively regulating acrylamide in the longer run.

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