Food processing contaminants

Hello, my name is Marco Binaglia. I’m a toxicologist at EFSA where I help to assess chemical contaminants in food. Today I’m going to talk about process contaminants. Firstly, why are contaminants found in food? Our food consists of many different chemicals. These include nutrients such as proteins, fat and fibre that are an essential part of our diet. Some chemicals with different toxicological properties may unintentionally end up in food. They are called “contaminants”. Contaminants can be naturally-occurring or introduced by human activity, like process contaminants. Process contaminants are substances that form when food undergoes chemical changes during processing. Processing methods include fermentation, smoking, drying and, in particular, cooking at high-temperature. Many foods must be cooked to actually be edible and digestible. Also, cooking makes food tastier. However, baking, frying, barbecuing or grilling, either at home or in manufacturing, can have undesired consequences. Besides the loss of some nutrients like vitamins, harmful byproducts can develop too. What are some examples of process contaminants? In the 70s, scientists discovered presence of harmful substances that developed during cooking like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, and heterocyclic aromatic amines. Regulators and food operators made changes to limit their presence in food. More recently, studies have revealed other process contaminants such as acrylamide and furan, which can cause cancer in laboratory animals. Acrylamide is commonly found in starchy foods, such as potato and cereal products which have been deep-fried, roasted or baked. At high temperatures, a chemical reaction between sugars and amino acids gives these foods their distinctive taste and colour but it also produces acrylamide. Furan is a substance formed during heat treatment of food. It’s found in a variety of foods such as coffee, canned and jarred foods including baby food containing meat and vegetables. This variety suggests that furan may form as a result of different chemical reactions and, therefore, different processes. What are scientists doing to protect consumers? In Europe, countries collect data on the levels of these substances in food. Risk assessors like EFSA study these data to understand if they pose health risks for consumers. Research is also ongoing to better understand how these substances form during processing and to find ways to reduce their presence in food. For example, more careful selection of raw materials and cooking practices can help to limit the formation of acrylamide in potato products and bread. Consumers like you can help too by following a balanced diet and varying how your food is cooked. For more detailed information you can contact your national food safety agency.

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