Why Do My Snack Foods Contain a Chemo Drug?

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Asparaginase is a chemotherapy drug used to treat blood disorders and diseases like acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In the last decade, food manufacturers have found another application for this enzyme. They’re putting it in baked and fried potato snacks. But is it safe? And why exactly are food processing companies adding a chemotherapy drug to your snack foods? We wondered, too.

Quick Read:
Food manufacturers are using an enzyme additive and cancer drug called asparaginase to reduce levels of acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen, in snack foods. The additive is generally considered safe by the FDA, but it has some critics alarmed. Do any of your snack foods contain asparaginase, aka “PreventASe?”

Why Is a Chemo Drug Being Added to Your Snack Foods?

Asparaginase as a Cancer Treatment — and Food Additive

Asparaginase is an enzyme created from one of two types of bacteria: escherichia coli and Erwinia chrysanthemi. In cancer treatment, the enzyme breaks down the chemicals that are necessary for new cell growth, which keeps cancer cells from dividing and growing.

The enzyme works similarly in food manufacturing. It changes the chemical makeup of certain amino acids in carbohydrates, which prevents the formation of acrylamide.

Why Is Asparaginase Being Added to Snack Foods?

In 2002, chemists discovered the presence of acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, in fried and baked foods. Acrylamide is formed naturally when you heat certain types of food, such as potatoes, cereals and coffee. It’s a byproduct of the reaction that browns, crisps and makes these foods so delicious.

As part of a 2008 lawsuit settlement over the presence of acrylamide in food, Heinz, Frito-Lay and Lance agreed to take measures to reduce acrylamide in their products. But how? By adding asparaginase, called PreventASe in the U.S., manufacturers can reduce acrylamide levels by up to 90 percent. This means you can eat your favorite snacks without ingesting as much of the cancer-causing acrylamide in the process.

Is Asparaginase Safe to Consume?

Asparaginase has some critics. As a chemo drug, the enzyme poses several risks and side effects, including stomach cramping, hallucinations, agitation, nausea, fever and chills. Researchers believe the enzyme becomes inactive during cooking, which may eliminate the risk of side effects. The Food and Drug Administration has said that there is no reason to question the safety of the enzyme and announced it was generally recognized as safe.

In an effort to reduce health risks associated with popular food ingredients, and to increase deliciousness, manufacturers are looking for new and improved additives all the time. In most cases, these new ingredients pose few risks, but this may not always be the case. We will keep working to keep us all informed about the ingredients in our foods.