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Canada adds acrylamide to list of toxic substances

By Staff Reporter, 27-Aug-2009

Related topics: Quality, Safety, Hygiene, Packaging Technology, Safety & Regulation

Acrylamide, a chemical that that appears in both food packaging and processed foods, has been added to a list of toxic substances by Canadian health authorities.

Health Canada confirmed it had placed acrylamide onto Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 in order to minimise the public’s exposure to the chemical which Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said “may pose a risk to human health”.

Acrylamide first came onto the health and safety agenda in 2002 when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration reported unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich foods and published evidence linking the chemical to cancer in laboratory rats.

The majority of acrylamide is used in the production of polymers which are then used to manufacture food packaging. But the primary source of exposure is from food sources - although the level is low, said Health Canada. The chemical is produced when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures. It forms by a reaction, known as the Maillard effect, between sugar and an amino acid called asparagine, which creates the brown color and tasty flavor of baked, fried and toasted foods.

Risk management approach

Health Canada declared it was implementing a three-pronged risk management approach to cut the exposure of Canadians to the substance.

“The approach includes pressing the food industry to develop and implement acrylamide reduction strategies for use by food processors and the food service industry; regularly updating consumption advice; and coordinating risk management efforts for acrylamide in food with key international food regulatory partners,” said the body.

Industry action

But Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC) spokesman Derek Nigheor said there was still a need for further research to understand the health effects of acrylamide.

Over the past few years, aware of consumer concerns and the inconclusive nature of current research, food manufacturers have been making efforts to remove or reduce the chemical in their products.

Most attention in the past two years for reducing the chemical has focused on the use of enzymes to convert asparagine into another amino acid called aspartic acid, thereby preventing the creation of acrylamide.

Nigheor said FCPC would be working with government to develop guidance documents to make food companies aware of all the tools at their disposal to reduce levels of acrylamide.

The inclusion of the chemical on Health Canada’s toxic list is part of the Canadian government’s ongoing review of nearly two hundred chemical substances in widespread commercial use that have never before been subjected to thorough risk analysis.