- Published on Thursday, 03 July 2014 18:17
A chemical found in coffee, chips, burned toast, crisps, crackers and certain types of baby food has been confirmed as a cancer risk by European food watchdogs.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said children are most exposed to the chemical, which is called acrylamide and forms when roasting, frying and browning food.
Health authorities in Britain and Europe have long been aware of the concerns about the chemical and EFSA was asked to establish the scale of the problem and the risk.
It has now published a consultation paper, which warns: ‘EFSA has confirmed previous evaluations that, based on animal studies, acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups.
‘Coffee, fried potato products, biscuits, crackers and crisp breads, soft bread and certain baby foods are important dietary sources of acrylamide. On a body weight basis, children are the most exposed age groups.’
The organisation suggests it may be necessary to establish new legal controls for the food industry to try and reduce the levels found in products sold in restaurants and supermarkets.
The watchdog said it may also be necessary to issue new advice to home cooks to help them cut levels of the chemical in home cooked meals.
Food manufacturers in Britain have been under pressure to change their cooking methods and recipes in order to reduce the levels of acrylamide formed during cooking.
Despite this, the chemical remains at high levels in some products, while acrylamide is also created in the home during roasting and frying.
A study published by Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) last year found raised levels of the cancer risk chemical have been found in big brand foods from fries sold by KFC to crisps, ginger biscuits and even healthy breakfast cereals.
The chair of an EFSA panel set up to examine acrylamide, Dr Diane Benford, said: ‘Acrylamide consumed orally is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, distributed to all organs and extensively metabolised.
‘Glycidamide, one of the main metabolites from this process, is the most likely cause of the gene mutations and tumours seen in animal studies.’
However, Dr Benford, who is head of chemical risk at the FSA, pointed out that the evidence of harm to humans has, so far, only ‘provided limited and inconsistent evidence of increased risk of developing cancer’.
The panel has recommended the need for new research involving humans. It also wants surveys to give a better picture of acrylamide levels in food cooked and eaten in the home.
EFSA said: ‘Once finalised, EFSA’s scientific advice will support European and national decision-makers to consider possible measures to further reduce consumer exposure to this substance in food.
‘These may include, for example, advice on eating habits and home-cooking, or controls on commercial food production.’
In the past, there have been higher levels of the chemical in certain children’ s biscuits, but not in the rusks given to the very young.
The UK’s FSA has been carrying out regular surveys of high street food to measure acrylamide levels. The last survey, published in April 2013, found raised levels in 14 products.
The biggest problem was with crisps, including a number of expensive brands such as Burts Sea Salted crisps.
The UK's FSA has highlighted high levels of acrylamide in Burts Sea Salted Crisps.
There were also raised levels in Tesco ready salted crisps, Tayto cheese and onion crisps, Seabrook Sea Salted crisps, Pipers Anglesey sea salt crisps and the Co-op’s Sea Salt and chardonnay wine vinegar crisps.
Manufacturers suggested the problem was caused by the bad weather during the growing season of 2012 which changed the sugar levels in the potatoes thus creating more acrylamide during frying.
In terms of take-out food, raised levels were found in a sample of KFC fries bought at a fast food restaurant in Congleton, Cheshire, and a fish and chip shop in the same town.
Breakfast cereals are promoted as a healthy start to the day. However, those containing bran, which is cooked at a particularly high temperature, can contain more acrylamide.
Raised levels were found in Tesco Bran flakes, Sainsbury’s Wholegrain bran flakes, the Co-op’s Wheat bran flakes and Puffed wheat sold under the Good Grain Co. name.
Higher than expected levels were also found in Fox’s Ginger biscuits and TUC biscuits.
The FSA stresses that it does not consider the levels of the chemical found in the products to be dangerous, however it is keen that they are brought down as a precautionary measure.
A spokesman said: ‘The FSA will work with the relevant local authority to encourage food manufacturers to review their acrylamide reduction strategies.’
The watchdog says there is no need for the public to give up the foods named in its survey, however it does publish advice on how people can reduce exposure.
This includes cooking chips only to a light golden colour while advising that ‘bread should be toasted to the lightest colour acceptable’. It said manufacturers’ instructions for frying or oven-heating foods, such as chips, should be followed carefully.