The federal government could soon issue stronger health warnings about acrylamide, a chemical compound that forms in potatoes and many other foods when cooked.
Fried potato products are the chief source of acrylamide in food. The industry plans to develop new potato varieties with lower levels of the potentially harmful compound.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to release new information about the toxicology of acrylamide as early as March. Potato industry officials believe the information will include stronger public health warnings.
The FDA considers acrylamide to be a potential carcinogen in humans because it has been found to be carcinogenic in rodents.
Acrylamide forms in many foods when cooked at high temperatures. It can be found in everything from coffee to bread.
But Americans consume more of the chemical compound in fried potato products than any other food product.
"We're the primary source. We have a target on our back," Steve Vernon, vice president of quality and innovation at the J.R. Simplot Co. food group, said Jan. 19 during a presentation at the Idaho Potato Conference in Pocatello.
"This is our industry's Manhattan project," Vernon said. "We have to get these levels down."
The industry needs to develop new potato varieties if it is to significantly reduce acrylamide levels, he said. The industry standard, the Russet Burbank, has shown the highest concentrations of the compound.
The industry recently launched a new initiative called the National Fry Processor Trials in an effort to develop new varieties with lower acrylamide levels. Variety trials will be conducted of the most promising clones in the U.S. potato breeding system.
The project will be funded by major processors, the U.S. Potato Board and state potato organizations in major fry growing areas.
Participating processors include Simplot, McCain Foods, Lamb-Weston, Cavendish Foods and the H.J. Heinz Co. AIS Consulting will manage the project.
The industry wants to have a new variety with acrylamide levels of less than 250 parts per billion by 2016. The long-term goal is to develop varieties with less than 100 parts per billion.
The industry can do it, but it will take time, Vernon said. Plant breeders will be the key player in the new project.
The new low-acrylamide potatoes could include both conventional and genetically modified varieties, he said.
Acrylamide levels vary widely depending on growing region. The levels are lower in Washington state's Columbia Basin and higher in Idaho and the Midwest.
"That's why I think it won't be just one variety that replaces Burbank," Vernon said. "We may need a couple of different varieties for different growing regions."
The industry has make some progress in reducing acrylamide levels in the retail frozen potato products that consumers bake at home, but not in the fried products served by restaurants, Vernon said.
"It's clear in our meetings with the FDA that we need to show that we are making progress," he said.
"In the end, we need to create potato varieties that resolve the issue but don't adversely affect the sensory attributes that have made the French fry the American icon that it is," he said.
-Source, Capital Press