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Acrylamide is a well-known compound that is chemically manufactured in large amounts and used in the synthesis of polyacrylamide. This polymer is frequently used as a flocculation agent in water treatment and as an insulating material. Acrylamide may therefore occur naturally in water and air and is considered carcinogenic.

Acrylamide was not considered to be a great health risk in food prior to April 2002, however when the Swedish National Food Administration (NFA) presented the results of its studies on barbecued, deep-fried and oven-baked foodstuffs they found that the formation of acrylamide occurred at high temperatures and in products containing carbohydrates. These results had repercussions all over the world The official reaction from different countries is that this study does not expose a new food scandal. The general feeling is that the study has provided data on a phenomenon that has probably existed for thousands of years. However it is regarded as an important discovery, so much so that further studies are planned in order to obtain a sound scientific basis for the effect observed.

These studies include the testing and evaluation of cooked foods, the determination of the amount of acrylamine in relation to process parameter and more importantly, the health risk of eating food containing acrylamide. There is also demand for a comparison of the results obtained using different analytical techniques. The current state of scientific knowledge is insufficient for action and no countries have as yet changed their dietary recommendations.

It has been suggested that comparable products contain acrylamide at different levels and also there does seem to be a correlation with the food production condition. It has been observed that vigorous heat stress, combined with any number of factors, increases the content of acrylamide. Therefore it is suggested that it may be possible to reduce the formation of acrylamide by alteration in processing technologies. Many manufactures are considering these changes with regard to the principle that the content of any hazardous compound should always be minimized in foods.

It is worth noting that there is no current limit for the concentration of acrylamide in foodstuffs. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended a limit of 0.5 mg/l for drinking water. The EU Drinking Water Directive of 1998 specifies a limit of 0.1 mg/l. The laboratories of Eurofins in Denmark have confirmed the Swedish findings for acrylamide, ranging from below the limit of detection up to 4,000 mg/kg. The foodstuffs examined included potato chips, hard pastries, biscuits, crisp bread and breakfast cereals. This comparison illustrates the extent of the problem, although the consumption of water is much greater than the foodstuffs in question. Furthermore, the findings of unprocessed and boiled foods were well below the limit of detection.

Unlike the majority of food related scares, which in general are related to industrially manufactured products, acrylamide formation occurs domestically by frying, grilling or baking.

Published by the Directorate: Food Control
Department of Health
Private Bag X828
0001 Pretoria


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