Food contaminated by furan: what are the risks?

Furan is formed during the cooking of food and is recognized as a possibly carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Coffee and ready-to-eat baby food contain the highest concentrations as they are prepared in closed environments. While this certainly gives cause for concern, the work of researchers at the University of Liege shows that the risks for the Belgian population are limited.

capsulesWhat we eat has a direct impact upon our health. Food safety, and more particularly food hygiene is today identified as one of the great challenges facing societies on a European and world-wide scale. Even if we can freely choose the food we eat, its exact composition - and therefore the possible presence of harmful products – is unknown to ordinary people. Fortunately, the authorities monitor and depend on scientists so that they can establish norms that must be respected in order to protect the consumer from the potentially harmful effects of some products.

Contaminants linked to transformation processes are part of the hidden components where their presence in the most common foodstuffs is often unknown by the consumers. It concerns undesirable and harmful substances formed during the preparation of foodstuffs. This kind of contaminant started to be monitored after the discovery of acrylamide in food in 2002. Acrylamide forms naturally in certain foods that are browned on the pan or fried, such as crisps and French fries, but also biscuits, cereals and bread. Since its discovery, this substance has been classed as “possibly carcinogenic for humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO). A list of indicative values for acrylamide levels in various foodstuffs established by the European Union is currently available.

Coffee and small jars of baby food are the main culprits with regard to levels of furan content.

No regulation has already been established for furan, another contaminant linked to food transformation. Although classified as a probable carcinogenic substance by the IARC, the authorities are awaiting the results of supplementary scientific tests in order to establish levels of the chemical that should not be exceeded in foodstuffs. The first studies on furan date back to 2004-2005 and researchers at Ulg have been studying the chemical since 2008. In his doctoral thesis (1), financed by the Federal Public Health Service, the FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, Georges Scholl was asked with determining the level of contamination of foodstuffs in Belgium and the level of furan to which the adults, children and babies of our country are exposed.

Furan is a small organic molecule (C4H4O) formed during heat treatment as cooking or sterilization process of food. It is a very volatile molecule that is formed in the presence of many precursors such as amino acids, sugars, lipid oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids. It is found in pre-packed foods that have undergone heat treatment, like the contents of some food cans or glass jars but also vacuum-packed foods that are ready to eat.

(1) Belgian population exposed to furan: from analytical developments to risk assessment, Georges Scholl, doctoral thesis, 2013.

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