Acrylamide is naturally formed when starchy foods, such as biscuits, crackers, snacks, French fries, and crisp bread are baked or fried at high temperatures.
Studies have classified acrylamide as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, putting scientists to the test trying to find a healthier way to reduce the substance while retaining the same good taste. Enzymes offer an innovative solution, reducing acrylamide while keeping flavour, feel, and colour.
Most people know the feeling of holding a cracker, enjoying its appealing golden colour, the sensation of biting into its crispness and listening to the crunchy sound while savouring its delicious baked flavour. Baked and fried foods are popular worldwide, and their obvious qualities are truly appreciated.
However, some hidden attributes are not quite so favourable, such as the chemical, acrylamide, that has been classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on studies conducted in mice and rats by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Health concerns regarding acrylamide intake are on the rise, with reports from studies highlighting the risk of acrylamide in food hitting the press. Studies carried out by the WHO, the FDA, and other research bodies using food consumption data from several countries and data from the IARC EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition), have estimated an acrylamide exposure of 0.3 to 0.8 ìg/kg body weight per day. The Heat-generated Food Toxicants (HEATOX) project, a three-year EU research program launched to learn more about toxicants in cooked foods, has concluded there is increasing toxicological evidence which suggests that acrylamide in food might be a risk factor, and that although there are ways to decrease exposure of acrylamide, there is no way to completely eliminate it.
Decreasing acrylamide formation
Common process and recipe changes to decrease the acrylamide formation include the reduction of baking or frying time and temperature, pH reduction, replacement of inverted sugar syrup with sucrose solution, addition of competing amino acids, and changing the type of baking powder. However, all these methods may not only limit acrylamide formation but also change the formation of the desired Maillard reaction. In most cases, taste, appearance, and other sensory characteristics like crispiness are also affected.
The main mechanism for acrylamide formation involves reducing sugars and the amino acid asparagine, both common in starchy foods. The sugars react with asparagine when the food is heated and through a cascade of reactions, the side chain of asparagine is converted to acrylamide. These reactions, which produce acrylamide, are part of the usually heat-induced Maillard reactions which also produce the brown colour and characteristic tasty flavour of baked, fried, and toasted foods.
One very effective means of reducing acrylamide formation without affecting taste or appearance is enzymatic removal of the amino acid asparagine by converting it into aspartic acid. The enzyme type responsible for this action is called an asparaginase.
Preserving colour and flavour
“The Maillard reaction is the process that gives the delicious brown crust and fried or baked flavour, but during this reaction acrylamide is also formed. However, with an asparaginase, only asparagine is converted, meaning that all other ingredients still take part in the Maillard reaction. That’s how you keep the crust and taste, while substantially reducing acrylamide in the end product,” said Novozymes regional marketing manager for Asia Pacific, Wolfgang Eger.
Worldwide interest in enzymatic acrylamide reduction
The enzyme, asparaginase, has been proven to reduce acrylamide levels by up to 90% in a broad range of foods, such as biscuits, crisp bread, crackers, snacks, and tortilla chips, and food manufacturers around the globe are showing increasing interest in this technology.
One asparaginase enzyme on the market is Novozymes’ acrylamide-reducing solution, Acrylaway, which is now commercially available in several countries around the world, and is currently the only asparaginase available for sale in Australia and New Zealand.
“We’ve worked with many of the industry players globally during the development of Acrylaway to ensure effectiveness and suitability for food production,” said Eger. “Our finding is that the food industry cares about food safety and acrylamide”.
The appeal with enzyme technology is that it is a natural solution that does not influence the product’s taste or appearance — a double bonus for food manufacturers looking for acrylamide-reducing solutions while ensuring the continued appeal of their products to consumers.