Questions and Answers on the Occurrence of Furan in Food
May 7, 2004
What is furan?
Furan is a colorless, volatile liquid used in some chemical manufacturing industries. Furan has occasionally been reported to be found in foods. Now scientists at FDA have discovered that furan forms in some foods more commonly than previously thought. This discovery is likely a result of our ability to detect compounds at exceedingly low levels with the latest analytical instruments rather than a change in the presence of furan. The scientists think the furan forms in the food during traditional heat treatment techniques, such as cooking, jarring, and canning.
The term "furans" is sometimes used interchangeably with "dioxins." Does this mean that furan is a dioxin-like compound?
No, furan is not a dioxin-like compound. The term "furans" is sometimes used as shorthand for a group of environmental contaminants called the dibenzofurans, which have dioxin-like activity. In addition "furans" refers to a large class of compounds of widely varying structures including, for example, nitrofurans. These chemicals have different effects than the furan that is now being studied.
What foods has FDA tested? What foods has furan been found in?
So far, FDA has focused on testing canned or jarred foods, because these foods are heated in sealed containers. Furan has been found in such canned or jarred foods as soups, sauces, beans, pasta meals, and baby foods. Data on furan in foods can be found on FDA's website.
How much of a risk is furan in foods?
Furan causes cancer in animals in studies where animals are exposed to furan at high doses. Because furan levels have been measured in only a few foods to date, it is difficult for FDA scientists to accurately calculate levels of furan exposure in food and to estimate a risk to consumers. However, FDA's preliminary estimate of consumer exposure is well below what FDA expects would cause harmful effects. FDA will continue to thoroughly evaluate these preliminary data and conduct additional studies to better determine the potential risk to human health.
The new data show furan in baby foods. Is furan in baby foods of special concern?
No. These data are exploratory and provide only a very limited and incomplete picture of the levels of furan in foods. These data alone do not indicate exposure or risk. FDA's preliminary estimate of consumer exposure is well below what FDA expects would cause harmful effects. FDA has no evidence that consumers should alter their infants' and children's diets and eating habits to avoid exposure to furan.
How did FDA make these findings?
In the course of investigations to confirm the accuracy of a report that furan may be formed in food under certain circumstances, FDA scientists discovered that a wider variety of foods that were heat treated than previously thought contained varying levels of furan.
Why is furan a concern?
Furan is listed in the Department of Health and Human Services list of carcinogens, and considered as possibly carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based on studies in laboratory animals at high exposures. The concern is whether furan may also cause cancer in humans through long-term exposure to very low levels of furan in foods.
Did furan suddenly appear in food?
No, furan did not suddenly appear in food and has likely been present in food for many years. Furan appears to result from heat treatment techniques, such as canning and jarring, which have long been essential methods of safe food preparation and preservation. Scientists have previously reported finding furan in a small number of foods. What's new now is that FDA scientists have developed a new method that can measure exceedingly low levels of furan and applied that method to a wide variety of foods.
What is FDA doing about furan in foods?
Since first investigating furan in foods with a semi-quantitative method, FDA has refined its method to give quantitative furan measurements, applied that method to a limited number of foods, and begun planning for a larger survey of foods. FDA has also published in the Federal Register a call for data on furan from the scientific community. In addition, FDA is holding a public Food Advisory Committee meeting on June 8, 2004, to seek input on what data are needed to fully assess the risk, if any, posed by furan to consumers. FDA will evaluate the available data and will develop an action plan that will outline the agency's goals and planned activities on the issue of furan in food. The action plan will consider such items as an expanded food survey, studies to identify mechanisms of formation in foods and potential strategies to reduce furan levels, and toxicology studies to address mechanisms of furan toxicity and dose-response.
How does furan form in foods?
Exactly how furan forms in food is unknown. Early indications are that there are probably multiple mechanisms of furan formation. Heating is probably an important contributing factor to furan formation in foods, but heat may not be the only pathway to furan formation.
How do the levels of furan in canned foods relate to foods as eaten?
It is possible that canned or jarred foods that have measurable furan levels right after opening may contain lower levels of furan after they are heated in open containers, as they typically would be prior to consumption. Furan is volatile, and a portion may evaporate when foods are heated in an open container, such as a pot. To test this hypothesis, FDA will compare furan levels in foods directly from a can or jar and after heating them as a consumer ordinarily would before consumption.
Will more foods be tested?
Yes, FDA will test more foods and different types of foods, such as non-canned foods and home prepared foods, in the future. FDA will also look at the effect on furan levels of opening and heating canned and jarred foods.
Should consumers change their eating habits?
No. FDA's preliminary exposure data suggest that the levels of furan being found in food are well below levels that would cause harmful effects. Until more is known, FDA recommends that consumers eat a balanced diet, choosing a variety of foods that are low in trans fat and saturated fat, and rich in high-fiber grains, fruits, and vegetables.
What FDA data are available on furan in food?
FDA has posted its exploratory data on furan in foods collected as of April 28, 2004, as well as the method used to analyze the foods, on its Web site.