Food companies in UK have been warned about the presence of acrylamide, cancer-risk chemical, in everyday products ranging from crisps and chips to instant coffee and ginger biscuits.
A biscuit designed for babies and toddlers has also been caught up in the alert.
Experts are even warning families to only lightly toast their bread at home, as the chemical, called acrylamide, is more likely to form the longer and darker foods cook.
A study by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has identified 13 products containing raised levels of the chemical. In each case, officials at the local council where the supplier is based have been told to notify them.
Acrylamide, which is still being investigated by scientists, is a cooking by-product associated with frying, baking, roasting or toasting foods at very high temperatures, usually greater than 120 C.
The FSA insists its findings raise no immediate risk to the public and there is no need for people to change their diet.
However, it is putting pressure on all food companies to reduce acrylamide levels because long-term consumption could increase the risk of cancer. Its official advice is also that families should ensure bread and chips they eat are only toasted or baked to the “lightest color possible”.
The FSA said its study of levels of acrylamide and furan – another cancer-risk chemical – is used to identify which firms need to take action. Acrylamide is formed by a reaction between natural components in food as it cooks.
In reality it has probably been in the diet for as long as man has fried, roasted or toasted food. Manufacturers including Heinz and McVitie’s have already responded by changing their recipes.
But others, including Nestle, makers of Nescafe, say it is impossible to do so without harming the flavor and quality of their products. Nestle added: “There is currently no scientific evidence to suggest any particular product has any negative impact on health in the context of acrylamide exposure.”
The FSA is required by the EU and the European Food Safety Authority to carry out the annual tests. It looked at 248 samples, from chips sold by fast-food outlets to supermarket own-label and big brand ranges. In 13 cases levels were above the “indicative value” – a trigger point to tell the firm it should examine its production process.
European watchdogs have been putting pressure on food manufacturers to reduce acrylamide for almost a decade.
In 2002 Swedish studies revealed high levels formed during the frying or baking of potato or cereal products.
The FSA said: “This raised worldwide public concern because studies in laboratory animals suggest acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer in humans by interacting with the DNA in cells.
“The Agency believes exposure to such chemicals should be as low as reasonably practicable.”
The latest survey found “an upward trend” in acrylamide levels in processed cereal-based baby foods, excluding rusks. Importantly however, the FSA said this did not mean parents should stop giving these products to youngsters.
The UK Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, said members are “ensuring levels are as low as reasonably achievable”.
Heinz changed its Banana Biscotti recipe this year to reduce acrylamide to trace levels. United Biscuits, which makes McVitie’s Gingernuts, said it has cut acrylamide by 70%. The firm also pledged to cut levels in its McCoy’s crisps.