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Worldwide concern over acrylamide in food

The New Straits Times, June 9, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

When it comes to food scares threatening public health, much still needs to be done. The most recent example is the issue of acrylamide in some food products. Late last month, the Health Minister expressed concern about the matter, recommending "an immediate check on samples in supermarkets and shops to ascertain if they contained high level of acrylamide." (NST, May 27).

This followed reports worldwide by scientists that many types of  food, especially those processed or cooked, contained the substance.

In Britain, it was detected in breakfast cereals and rye crispbreads, crisps, crackers, rice crispies as well as fried potatoes and chips. In other words, junk and fast foods are more likely to contain the toxic substance.

The UK Central Science Laboratory in York was quoted as saying that it "feared that the chemical is formed naturally in foods when fried or baked".

This is particularly so when the specified limits are exceeded, turning it into a carcinogen or a cancer-causing agent. In the food listed in the report, some were found to contain levels greater than 1,000 times the permissible international limits.

In Sweden, similar findings were reported earlier. The University of Stockholm showed that the substance could be produced in high concentrations during cooking when carbohydrate-rich foods, like rice or cereals, were fast-food outlets.

Acrylamide is said to affect the nervous system. Apart from slurred speech, lethargy and fatigue have also been cited in some reports. It can also cause adverse effects aspecially those relating to fertility.

Other sources reported the possibility of gene mutations (genotoxicity) in addition to carcinogenicity giving rise to various types of cancer, including, breast cancer, uterine cancer and also that of the adrenal glands.

As such, the assurances given by the Health Ministry are welcome because consumers cannot be sure if the food they consume is safe. A brief media survey reported in the Malay Mail (May 28) seemed to suggest both consumers and promoters of such foods are oblivious of the safety implications in spite of the worldwide concern.

Some, particularly teenagers, confessed that they "just love junk food" too much to be bothered about it. According to the survey, "most say that they are not about to give up on their favorite junk food."

This is a sad reflection of the lack of consciousness among Malaysians of this age bracket about the food they consume. Even without the acrylamide scare, junk food should not have been so high on the teenagers' list of favorite foods. It is disturbing to note there are teenagers who seem to choose food solely for its taste, believing that tasty food "cannot be bad".

In hindsight, it is difficult to blame them entirely as there is little information available on the quality of the food they prefer. Junk food, even at the established international outlets, carries no dietary information, just fancy names and prices.

Take, for example, the burger. Other than taste (and perhaps presentation), how does one determine quality, let alone nutritional value? And this goes for the entire range of fast foods.

The reaction is different when a report alleges a toxic effect involving a medical product. Despite its healing qualities, many quickly cease taking the medication.

The reason is medical products have always been understood to contain some measure of risk (side-effects). And this is clearly shown on the labels after it is endorsed by an authoritative national committee, in this case, the Drug Control Authority of Malaysia.

This tunes the mind of the public to the fact that there are inherent dangers in medical products. And therefore any new announcement is sufficient to raise an alarm.

But all these are absent in the case of food. No doubt food and medicine are two quite different categories of products that require two different sets of labels. But the principles governing them cannot be very different.

Both invariably affect health when consumed, more so in the case of food which is eaten more regularly, if not daily. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is named as such.

In short, Malaysians need a new mind set when in comes to viewing the issues of food safety. 



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