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Food Quality and Safety in Europe



In April 2002, Swedish scientists found disturbingly high levels of a carcinogen called acrylamide in certain cooked foods, including chips and crisps. Food safety officials around the world were surprised and perplexed. In response to these findings, the European Commission has generated a large database on all research activities, including reduction approaches and toxicology related activities, while the World Health Organisation has developed an international network of researchers. So far, little is known about acrylamide and more knowledge is needed on different aspects of this and other related substances.

The European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme is contributing to this international research effort with a three-year Specific Targeted Research Project known as HEATOX. It involves 14 countries, some outside the European Union. The project aims to contribute towards filling in the gaps in knowledge as regards acrylamide, and to find out about other substances that are formed during the cooking of starchy foods, to establish whether their levels can be reduced by altering cooking practices, and to help in assessing the risk to those consumers who are eating these foods.


Acrylamide is a well-known and regulated substance used in various industries, including the manufacture of plastics. It is known to induce cancer in animals, damage nerves and impair male fertility. Until recently, it was not known to occur in starchy food.

The HEATOX project focuses on potato-based foods such as chips and crisps, and cereal products, including breads and crispbreads. Scientists will study the reaction pathways that produce different substances during cooking. Having understood the chemistry, they will test different raw materials and cooking processes to find out whether levels of substances, such as acrylamide and other compounds, can be reduced without changing the quality of the prepared food.

The research will involve industrial and home-cooking food processing methods, and a set of guidelines will be produced. With our increasing dependence on processed food, changes in processing and home-cooking practices could reduce cancer levels, especially since diet is thought to contribute to about 30% of some cancers. In particular, companies that manufacture cooking equipment will be informed of any potential means of improving the design of their products.


It is essential to put such information in perspective. Some of the foods involved are important components of a healthy diet, and substances formed during the heat treatment of food are clearly not immediately lethal - we have been cooking our food since we invented fire. We need to assess the exposure of consumers through diet, and the toxicity of these substances to humans at specific exposure levels. Information about how dangerous the substances are will include, for example, experiments with different cell cultures. Scientists will examine human and animal cells for subtle changes in cellular chemistry, including gene expression, in response to small amounts of these substances. They will also look for reaction products produced by the human body in response to them, such as altered DNA, or 'breakdown' products. These so-called 'biomarkers' will be used to measure exposure levels in humans.

The project also involves consumer groups and communication specialists who will concentrate on the effective and appropriate communication of the findings of this research. A website has been set up where the stakeholders and the public will be able to see the project results and find out more about how best to prepare food.

List of Partners

  • Lunds Universitet (Sweden)
  • Graz University of Technology (Austria)
  • Stockholm University (Sweden)
  • National Veterinary and Food Administration, Søborg (Denmark)
  • University of Reading (UK)
  • Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala (Sweden)
  • University of Bologna (Italy)
  • Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, Gothenburg (Sweden)
  • Wageningen University (The Netherlands)
  • Central Science Laboratory, York (UK)
  • Swedish Food Administration, Uppsala (Sweden)
  • Vysoka Skola Chemickotechnologicka v Praze, Prague (Czech Republic)
  • Agrotechnological Research Institute ATO B.V., Wageningen (The Netherlands)
  • University of Barcelona, (Spain)
  • Tübitak-Marmara Research Centre, Kocaeli (Turkey)
  • Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo (Norway)
  • RIKILT Institute of Food Safety, Wageningen (The Netherlands)
  • Deutsches Institut für Ernaehrungsforschung, Postdam-Rehbruecke (Germany)
  • University of Leeds (UK)
  • Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs, Brussels (Belgium)
  • National Veterinary Institute, Oslo (Norway)
  • University of Zurich (Switzerland)
  • Universidad de Chile, Santiago (Chile)
Full title:
Heat-generated food toxicants identification, characterisation and risk minimisation
Contract n°:
Project co-ordinator:
Kerstin Skog, Lunds Universitet, or
EC Scientific Officer:
Jürgen Lucas,
EU contribution:
€ 4.2M
Specific Targeted Research Project

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top