Acrylamide concerns: EU consumer organization calls for stronger consumer protection

Acrylamide concerns: EU consumer organization calls for stronger consumer protection

06 Mar 2019 --- A new European test by consumer organizations has highlighted that consumers, especially young consumers, should be better protected from cancer-causing acrylamide in their food. To do so, the European Consumer Organization, BEUC, is calling on the European Commission (EC) to lower the current indicative benchmarks for this contaminant and make these binding for food producers.

Acrylamide is a suspected carcinogen that forms in foods with reduced sugar that is processed at a high temperature. Many food manufacturers have already taken steps to reduce acrylamide levels in their products and governments all over the world are starting to pay attention to acrylamide and are implementing new regulations, which include setting benchmark levels and requiring warning signs on foods and beverages that contain acrylamide, such as the California Prop 65 warning. 

As part of the European-wide test, ten consumer groups sampled over 500 food products known to contain acrylamide, such as crisps, cookies, coffee or breakfast cereals. The test concluded that cookies and wafers are especially problematic, with a third of samples at or above the current acrylamide benchmarks. 

According to the BEUC, such findings are alarming as children under the age of three often consume these products, which are allowed to contain more acrylamide than biscuits intended for infants. However, when checked against the lower benchmark for infant biscuits, almost 2 in 3 regular biscuits tested are not suitable for young children.

The BEUC is also calling on the EC to come up with benchmarks for vegetable crisps. Tests reportedly show that on average crisps made of carrots, beetroots or parsnips contain almost twice as much acrylamide as the potato versions, although they are often perceived as healthier options. 

Click to Enlarge“It is possible to produce crisps, chips or cereals with low acrylamide content. But as long as the measures are voluntary, some manufacturers will not take the issue seriously and consumers might still be exposed to high acrylamide levels. To oblige food makers to pay more attention to this contaminant, the EU Commission must set binding limits, as we have repeatedly called for,” Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC comments.

“Many parents give their young children biscuits and wafers that are primarily intended for older children and adults. The commission should then propose to bring down the acrylamide benchmark for regular biscuits, so it gets closer to the one for baby biscuits. That would more effectively protect our little ones, who are most vulnerable to acrylamide effects due to their lower body weight,” she explains. 

“This test also reveals that vegetable crisps are not as healthy as they seem to be. Until binding limits are set, the commission should at least define indicative benchmarks for acrylamide in these popular snacks to force producers to minimize the presence of this harmful substance.”

The good news is that the tests also found crisps, biscuits and chips, with low acrylamide levels, Camille Perrin, Senior Food Policy Officer at the BEUC tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “We are not saying anyone should stop eating anything. We just want the EU to oblige food makers to truly step up their efforts to cut acrylamide in their products.”

According to Perrin, it would make sense to perform similar tests in the US for instance, because contrary to the EU’s situation, food makers in the US are not even required to do anything about acrylamide in their products. “The US administration only issued guidance on this contaminant in food, which food makers can choose to ignore. Even in Switzerland, there is so far no legislation on acrylamide in food and our Swiss member FRC is calling for similar rules as we have in the EU,” she explains.

Under EU rules, food manufacturers, fast-food chains and restaurants must apply measures to ensure acrylamide levels in their products remain below indicative benchmarks. This is a good first step, but what our members’ tests showed is that these benchmarks are too lenient. To incentivize additional efforts by food makers, they should be based on the best, not the worst, performers. “Therefore, we call for the benchmarks to be lowered. Second, to make all food manufacturers take the acrylamide issue seriously, we believe these benchmarks should be turned into binding limits,” Perrin notes.

“Consumers cannot do anything about processed food, that’s why we want the EU rules on acrylamide to be beefed up,” she adds. “It’s about minimizing consumers’ exposure to this cancer-causing contaminant. That is why we advocate for strict acrylamide limits, which would protect consumers more effectively than just another label.”

Industry and regulatory responses to acrylamide risk
Acrylamide is a chemical that naturally forms when starchy food such as potatoes or cereals is baked, fried or roasted at above 120°C. Lab tests have shown that acrylamide in the diet causes cancer in animals and scientists have concluded it potentially increases the cancer risk for consumers of all ages. In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that acrylamide in food was a major public health concern.

Consumers are exposed to acrylamide through industrially-produced foods, such as crisps, bread, biscuits, coffee, but also through home cooking, for example, if they cook fries above 175°C or burn their morning toast.

While the EC and the State of California have been the first to take legislative action to reduce acrylamide levels, regulatory bodies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and China are also investigating the dietary risk of acrylamide and are working with the food industry to develop risk management options. 

The latest EU acrylamide regulations came into force in April 2018, marking the beginning of the law which limits the amount of acrylamide allowed in packaged foods and forces manufacturers to closely examine and reduce acrylamide levels in products. 

The legislation describes practical measures based upon best practice guidelines developed by the food industry to mitigate acrylamide formation in a range of foods. 

Since the 2018 acrylamide regulation came into force in Europe, food manufacturers, fast-food chains and restaurants must ensure acrylamide levels in their products remain below indicative benchmarks set in the law. For instance, techniques to reduce acrylamide in potato-based products include using potato varieties less likely to develop acrylamide, storing them properly and frying them at a minimum temperature.

Industry has responded to concerns and new regulations by continuously innovating in this space. For example, in January 2019, Kerry partnered with Renaissance BioScience Corp to launch Acryleast, a targeted solution for acrylamide reduction. The clean-label non-GMO yeast is rich in asparaginase enzyme, which can reduce acrylamide levels by up to 90 percent. 

In September 2018, a report from DSM’s Global Insights Series revealed that consumers are still largely unaware of acrylamide – but those who do know something about acrylamide, know enough to be concerned. The study was conducted among consumers in France, Germany, the UK and the US.

By Elizabeth Green

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