Health Canada may add anti-cancer drug to junk food
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Tuesday, December 22, 2009 9:57PM EST
The federal government is making an unusual proposal. It's suggesting allowing food manufacturers to inject a cancer-fighting drug into fried goodies to counteract a substance in the foods that may be carcinogenic.
Health Canada is inviting public comments until Feb 21 on its idea to allow food manufacturers to add small amounts of the leukemia-fighter asparaginase to foods such as potato chips and french fries.
Research suggests asparaginase reduces the production of acrylamide, a potentially dangerous compound that is created during the high-temperature frying and baking of starchy foods.
Acrylamide made headlines a few years ago when Swedish scientists discovered high levels of it in deep-fried foods. It's thought that the substance is produced accidentally when sugars and other items in potatoes are exposed to high cooking temperatures. It has also been detected in cereals, pastries, cookies, breads, cocoa products and coffee, although at levels far below those in fried potato products, such as chips.
Studies have shown that acrylamide causes cancer in lab mice and rats. But its effect on human health is not clear; several studies have failed to prove that acrylamide is carcinogenic in humans.
Nevertheless, Health Canada is worried about the frying by-product. Earlier this year, it recommended adding acrylamide to the country's toxic substances list. And there are also regulations in the works that would limit levels of the chemical in food.
Rather than regulating acrylamide, food manufacturers would rather be allowed to add small amounts of asparaginase in food.
Asparaginase breaks down asparagine, an amino acid. In leukemia patients, asparagine allows cancer cells to grow. In food, asparagine is key ingredient in the production of acrylamide.
"Studies have definitely shown that using this enzyme in the manufacture of foods reduces the level of acrylamide," nutrition expert Leslie Beck told CTV News.
"Whether, at the end of the day, that reduces our potential, theoretical cancer risks, we don't know."
Health Canada says on its website its scientists have finished a detailed safety assessment on asparaginase and haven't found any health concerns. Asparaginase is destroyed in cooking so it's thought to have no impact on food or those who eat the foods.
Health Canada notes that the enzyme is already used in food manufacturing in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark. And it has been given a favourable evaluation by the Joint U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization /WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives.
Food manufacturers, too, are eager to be given permission to use the adrug as well.
"Food & Consumer Products of Canada has encouraged the federal governemnt to move swiftly towards its approval, as other modern countries in the world have," said the group's senior vice-president, Derek Nighbor.
Health Canada announced over the weekend that it's accepting feedback on the proposal for 75 days. If accepted, new rules could be implemented in six to eight months.