Two years after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed that acrylamide potentially increases the risk of developing cancer, and 15 years since Swedish researchers made the first link between acrylamide and cancer, representatives of the EU's 28 member states have just voted in favour of a proposal to reduce its presence in food, specifically in fries, crisps, bread, and biscuits.

Although outwardly straightforward, the decision remains controversial. Those opposing the introduction of limits point to evidence from animal studies that shows acrylamide in food could be linked to cancer. This link is not clear and consistent in humans (Emma Shields, Cancer Research UK) and the imposition of limits has so far not been proven necessary. However, others are lamenting that the commission has not imposed binding limits to protect consumer health.

The commission is planning to initiate discussions on setting maximum levels of acrylamide in certain foods after the new regulation is adopted. This is likely to be on the basis of what is 'reasonably achievable' and is likely to affect a range of foods, potentially including crisps, crackers, soft bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, wafers, gingerbread, coffees, biscuits and baby foods.

Acrylamide levels can be reduced by using different ingredients and additives, or by changing storage methods and the cooking temperature. The change is likely to have a big impact on the food industry in terms of its practice, costs, and the product taste.

However, where there is change there is also opportunity. There are potato varieties that naturally produce less acrylamide and according to the New Scientist growers are reportedly looking to develop varieties that contain less asparagine, an amino acid that seems to be important for making the chemical. Reports indicate that safer potatoes may become increasingly available.

For the frozen food industry, this could also be good news. At low temperatures (chilled), an enzyme called invertase breaks down the sucrose of potatoes into glucose and fructose, which can form acrylamide during cooking. Frozen food does not carry this particular risk, as sucrose does not get broken down at very low temperatures. The problem would be communicating this particular, rather complex message to consumers.

For the time being, it seems unlikely there will be any sudden reaction to the announcement and the proposal still has to be approved by the European Parliament and Council. Much will depend on the agreement of what limits are acceptable. However, some changes, whether wholesale or minor tweaks, appear inevitable.