Health Canada is proposing an unorthodox way of combatting acrylamide, a food ingredient suspected in some cancers: It wants to let manufacturers put small amounts of asparaginase - also used as 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 asparaginase 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.