C’mon Health Canada…
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
French Fries, Chips
Tom Blackwell, National Post
Francois Nascimbeni, AFP, Getty Images
Health Canada is proposing an unorthodox way of combatting a food ingredient suspected in some cancers: It wants to let manufacturers put small amounts of a cancer-fighting drug into potato chips and similar foods to curb production of the harmful chemical.
Ever since acrylamide was discovered seven years ago in such foods as french fries and chips cooked at high temperatures, scientists have struggled for a way to get it out. The chemical is not added deliberately; it is an unintentional byproduct of cooking.
Though the evidence is far from definitive, acrylamide has been connected to cancer in animals and possibly people.
As a partial answer, Health Canada is suggesting removing the requirement for a prescription to administer the enzyme asparaginase, except when it is injected into leukemia patients as a treatment.
That way, food companies could include small amounts of the drug in their products, the department says in a “notice of intent” document published on Saturday. Evidence suggests asparaginase lessens the production of acrylamide by as much as 90%.
The enzyme is destroyed in cooking so would have no impact on people consuming the food, said Varoujan Yaylayan, associate professor with McGill University’s food-science department. “It has been used quite effectively on an experimental basis,” he said. “It appears to work.”
The acrylamide issue has preoccupied food manufacturers as they brace for the possibility of regulations that could limit levels of the chemical or ban it outright. California actually sued french-fry and chip makers over the question, with several agreeing last year to reduce the volume of acrylamide in their goods.
“It’s been a big, big problem,” Prof. Yaylayan said. “Not so much in the public eye, but behind doors, the companies keep having meetings, having scientific symposia and seminars. I have attended many of them, here, in the U.S., in Europe.”
Manufacturers “fully support” the move suggested by Health Canada, Derek Nighbor of Food and Consumer Products of Canada said in a statement provided by the industry group yesterday.
Health Canada is accepting feedback on the idea for 75 days, and could implement it in six to eight months, the government document said.
Swedish scientists discovered in 2002 that acrylamide, used in making various industrial and consumer products, also occurred in foods ranging from breakfast cereals to bread cooked at over 120-degrees celsius. A by-product of heating certain sugars, levels are particularly elevated in carbohydrate-heavy food heated to high temperatures like chips and fries.
Tests have found consuming the chemical increases the risk of some cancers in rodents. Evidence of its effect on humans who eat it in food is less clear, though, with some research linking it to cancer but most studies finding the levels people eat would have no carcinogenic effect, said Lorelei Mucci, a Harvard medical school assistant professor who studies the issue.
In fact, Dr. Mucci questions devoting much energy or money to the substance.
Volumes of the chemical can be reduced by cooking at lower temperatures or soaking the product in water first to extract some sugar, but such techniques can affect the pleasant odour, crispiness or colour of some food.
Asparaginase is injected in leukemia patients, where it breaks down asparagine, an amino acid, killing the cancer cells. When it is applied to potatoes or other food before cooking, it similarly reduces the amount of asparagine, the key ingredient in the inadvertent production of acrylamide.
The “downstream effects” of using asparaginase to counter the chemical should be studied carefully, advised Dr. Mucci.