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Healthier heat-processed foods

Pre-baked or pre-cooked foods are heat-treated exploiting the so-called Maillard reaction to enhance flavour. EU-funded scientists provided vital information to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to reduce levels of contaminants produced as a result of this reaction.
Healthier heat-processed foods
The Maillard reaction browns meats and breads by a chemical reaction between sugars and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The reaction occurs naturally in kitchens all over the world.

First described in the early 1900s, it has been studied and used to develop literally hundreds of different flavours for each food type and has thus been exploited by the food-agro industry.

Unfortunately, among the Maillard end-products are neo-formed contaminants (NFCs) that may be detrimental to human health. For example, neo-formed acrylamide is a known neurotoxin and carcinogen in animals. Acrylamide is formed at temperatures above 180 degrees Celsius, particularly in baked or fried products.

Ingestion of acrylamide has now been clinically shown to induce rapid and long-lasting metabolic changes in infants and young adults.

SMEs are at a disadvantage compared to larger companies when research and new analytical and technical tools are required. As such, European researchers sought to provide SMEs with the tools needed to monitor and control processing and thus reduce NFC levels in foods. With EU funding of the ‘Impeding neo-formed contaminants accumulation to reduce their health effects’ (ICARE) project, scientists studied ways to decrease NFCs in heat-processed foods.

Researchers identified various food substances producing NFCs including fried products, biscuits, toasted dough and bread, and are in the process of evaluating their contribution to overall NFC exposure.

The consortium suggested that minimising NFCs is food-product dependent. For example, controlling the ingredients may be the best way to control NFCs in potato chips whereas decreasing process temperature may be more appropriate in the case of biscuits and bread crisps. A combination of techniques may produce complimentary results.

Overall, researchers sought to identify control methods without introducing additional additives. They are also developing and validating a fast and reliable NFC sensor to help identify critical process steps where NFCs are produced as well as monitor process products in-line during production for quality control.

ICARE project outcomes should thus enhance the health and safety of heat-processed foods as well as boost the competitiveness of European SMEs in the agro-food industry.

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