The study, published in the October, 2004 issue of Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, shows how food-based amino acids and sugars break down when heated to produce furan. It also identifies other food components, such as vitamin C and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which may produce furan as an unwanted by-product of cooking, bottling or canning food products.
"Furan and its derivatives sometimes form when amino acids or sugars are broken down by the heat of cooking," explains Dr. Yaylayan. "Normally, furan is a volatile chemical which tends to quickly evaporate. However, when it cannot escape for some reason, for example if it is in sealed cans or jars, then it remains present in the food for some time."
While traces of furan and furan-containing products have been found in some processed and cooked products, especially canned and bottled foods, there's no reason for consumers to change their shopping habits according to government health agencies. The quantities of furan in foods are well below what is considered dangerous.
Although furans have been linked to cancer in experimental animals, there is no direct evidence that furans are human carcinogens.
"Even so," says Dr. Yaylayan, "food companies and government agencies are keeping a close eye on the situation. It's important to know exactly what chemicals are present in food, and to understand how they form during processing."