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Feds to Look at Safety of Snack Foods

Potentially Cancer-Causing Chemical Linked to Cooking Process

WebMD Health News

Sept. 30, 2002 -- Acrylamide, a potentially cancer-causing chemical, appears to be a common contaminant in food. Now the FDA has vowed to determine how many foods it shows up in, and what, if any, health risk it poses.

The action plan released today comes in the wake of reports by Swedish scientists in April that acrylamide may be a widespread contaminant in many carbohydrate-rich foods such as potato chips, french fries, cookies, and cereals.

Among the plan's goals: to test acrylamide levels in various foods, assess any health risks, and identify the cooking and processing methods that contribute to acrylamide formation. The public has until October 30 to respond with comments.

Acrylamide is considered a probable cancer-causing agent, based on studies in animals. It is used in water purification, in dyes, and in a variety of other industrial uses.

It was not known to be in food until the Swedish reports came out. A study published in this week's edition of the journal Nature finds acrylamide in food might be linked to a naturally occurring amino acid. It appears to form from a chemical reaction when this amino acid, asparagine, is heated with certain sugars such as glucose.

The Swedish findings surprised officials at FDA, but the agency quickly confirmed its presence in a variety of US foods.

Early results from studies by the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Centers for Disease Control showed particularly high levels in French fries and potato chips. The chemical appears to be present at highest levels as a result of cooking at prolonged, heightened temperatures. Industrial processing as well as restaurant and home-cooking techniques appear able to foster heightened levels of the chemical.

Given that cooking appears to be the primary cause of acrylamide formation, it very likely has been present in foods for thousands of years, according to Bernard Schwetz, a senior advisor for science at FDA. The only thing new, he says, is that it has recently been detected. "It's disturbing because of what we don't know about [its effects]," added Lester M. Crawford, deputy commissioner at FDA.

The findings add acrylamide to a list of chemicals found in food that are known to cause cancer in animals. However, most such chemicals are found at lower levels than acrylamide.

Preliminary food studies suggest that french fries and potato chips contain levels of acrylamide at significantly higher levels than other foods, but the amount of acrylamide also varied greatly with samples. This suggests that cooking techniques or added ingredients may play an important role in determining content. "The large variability says that there are ways of making these (products) that can minimize the acrylamide formation. I think that's an important point for the future," said Lauren M. Posnick, of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Centers for Disease Control.

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