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Enzyme cuts out acrylamide

August 30, 2006 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

Unapproved food additive could make baked goods safer.

Acrylamide, when it was found in food in 2002, seemed to be the ultimate confirmation that everything tasty is bad for you. Here was a compound that was a probable carcinogen and possible neurotoxin, lurking in practically every fried or baked good.

But chemists have been working hard to save our beloved snacks, by finding a way to remove acrylamide from foods without subtracting the taste.

Acrylamide is produced by the Maillard reaction the chemical process by which carbohydrates transform, under heat, to golden-brown deliciousness. The World Health Organization says it is "probably carcinogenic to humans".

Thomas Amrein, a food chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, presented a possible solution to the problem this week at the European Chemistry Congress in Budapest, Hungary (see our newsblog for conference coverage). "This is probably the only approach that solves, rather than fights, the problem," he claims.

It's a snip

The answer, Amrein says, lies with a bacterial enzyme called asparaginase, which snips up precursor chemicals called asparagine so that they cannot go on to form acrylamide during baking. All one needs to do is toss a pinch of the stuff into dough while it is being kneaded.

This step reduces the amount of acrylamide in foods by up to 80%, Amrein reports, without changing the taste.

There is a catch, however: the enzyme hasn't been approved for use in food. Instead it is used as an anticancer drug, and when injected can cause serious side effects, from allergic reactions to joint pain. But Amrein notes that baking should neatly inactivate the enzyme before it gets anywhere near the gastrointestinal tract.

Baked bad?

Some other techniques have already been shown to whittle down the amount of acrylamide in food, such as switching from ammonium bicarbonate to sodium bicarbonate as a baking agent, or baking gingerbread with a touch of citric acid. Using several techniques together, says Amrein, should make every food acrylamide-safe.

Richard Stadler, of Nestlé in Orbe, Switzerland, says the idea has promise. But, he notes, "the trials performed with asparaginase to date have been executed mainly at the laboratory or pilot stage, and show different degrees of success."

The enzyme has to be introduced before the product is cooked, which might be problematic for products that use pre-baked ingredients. And it relies on water, so the process might be a bust in dry goods such as shortbread.

It is also expensive. Cheaper versions are being made by getting genetically modified bacteria to pump it out. But the transgenic origin of such asparaginase might turn out to be a regulatory or public relations problem. "This is one of the key questions," says Amrein.

Amrein says his many years of work on acrylamide have not diminished his love of French fries, but he throws away the brown bits where the compound is present in highest levels. "They don't taste nice anyway," he says.

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