Enzyme to counter toxin in tasty food

Published: Wednesday 15 November 2006

ever since acrylamide was found in food it seemed to be the ultimate confirmation that everything tasty is bad for health. Here was a compound that was a probable carcinogen and a possible neurotoxin, present in practically every fried or baked food. Fortunately, for gastronomes, an enzyme could offer a way out.

The answer, according to Thomas Amrein, a food chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, lies with a bacterial enzyme called asparaginase, which snips up precursor chemicals called asparagine so that they cannot form acrylamide which is produced by the Maillard reaction -- the chemical process by which carbohydrates transform, under heat, to golden-brown deliciousness -- during baking.

"All one needs to do is toss a pinch of the stuff into dough while it is being kneaded," he says. This step reduces the amount of acrylamide in food up to 80 per cent, Amrein reports, without changing the taste.

But the enzyme hasn't been approved for use in food. It is used as an anticancer drug instead, and when injected can cause serious side effects. But Amrein notes that baking should neatly inactivate the enzyme before it gets anywhere near the gastrointestinal tract. Richard Stadler, of Nestl in Orbe, Switzerland, says the idea has promise but not conclusive enough yet.

The enzyme needs to be introduced before the product is cooked, which might be a problem for products that use pre-baked ingredients, besides being expensive. Cheaper versions are being made by getting genetically modified bacteria to pump it out.

But the transgenic origin of such asparaginase might turn out to be a regulatory or public relations problem. "This remains one of the key questions," says Amrein.

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