Food technologists have unravelled the process that creates the potentially carcinogenic substance acrylamide in some cooked potato products.

Published in the UK journal Nature, two separate teams of researchers said they now understood what happened to create the substance. A process called the Maillard reaction is triggered when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures. More specifically, an amino acid called asparagine, plentiful in potatoes and certain cereals, reacts with sugars to produce acrylamide.

Work has been under way since Swedish scientists reported that foods with high levels of acrylamide appeared to cause nerve damage and cancer in laboratory animals. The impact of acrylamide on human health remains unclear, and so far no health agencies are advocating that consumers stop eating potatoes.

“The information available on acrylamide so far reinforces general advice on healthy eating, including moderating consumption of fried and fatty foods,” the World Health Organisation said, adding that “there is not enough evidence about the amounts of acrylamide in different types of food to recommend avoiding any particular food product.”

One approach may be for potato processors to use potato varieties that naturally contain lower levels of asparagine.

More investigation, call for labelling in US

Meanwhile, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said yesterday [Monday] that it would work with Health Canada to investigate the effects of acrylamide. “It is clear that acrylamide is a problem,” FDA deputy commissioner Lester Crawford said. “It doesn’t need to be in food.”

The FDA will test baby food, canned beans, cereals, chocolates, cookies, crackers, French fries, infant formulas, nuts, nut butters, potato chips, meat and other foods.

The announcement from the FDA and Health Canada came as consumer groups in the US demanded immediate government action to tell the public that foods such as crisps and fries may contain dangerously high levels of a potential carcinogen. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leading health advocacy group, called for labels alerting consumers to the risk.