The unintentional contaminant acrylamide in certain foods may be of public heath concern since it has been shown to cause cancer in animals, according to a report released today (Friday) by a joint expert committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.

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.

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 degrees C).

The joint FAO/WHO expert committee on food additives and contaminants 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, 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, the experts said that it was not possible to issue recommendations on how much of any specific food containing the substance is safe to eat.

The committee noted that the food industry has reported that it is evaluating means to reduce acrylamide levels in various foods and recommended that efforts to reduce acrylamide concentrations in foods continue.

It 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