They rarely appear on labels, but enzymes can produce very visible results for product developers. Lynda Searby reports
Since acrylamide first hit the headlines in 2002, the food industry has been busy finding ways to reduce levels of the suspected carcinogen in foods.
One approach is to use enzymes that target the conversion of the amino acid asparagine into aspartic acid, thereby preventing it from being converted into acrylamide.
Last month, Vancouver-based Functional Technologies Corp was awarded Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) status for its acrylamide-preventing yeast strains.
The firm's chief technology and innovation officer, Dr John Husnik, said he expected the GRAS-status product to be available for full commercial use in the near future.
"We have not released the product for full commercial scale sales at this point; all sales are related to bench and pilot scale runs. Once we have our commercial production capacity in place we expect to move to full commercial scale sales," he said.
In terms of the status of the yeast in Europe, he confirmed the product had not yet been commercially released in the EU, but that multiple trials were underway, with many complete.
The firm has tested on bread, toast, biscuits, crackers, extrusion products and various other snack foods. In all cases tested to date, Husnik said the yeast strains could reduce asparagine and/or acrylamide by 90% or more.
Like competing acrylamide-mitigating enzymes, Functional Technologies Corp's yeast strains work by preferentially degrading asparagine immediately on contact with other ingredients in the recipe.
However, according to Husnik, his firm's strains can achieve this without the long, extended contact times other baker's yeast strains require.
"The efficiency and efficacy of our proprietary product compares favourably with other known solutions, and the application of our product within a production facility is predictable and seamless, without common side-effects associated with by-products produced by other solutions," said Husnik.
Presumably, one of the rival products he is referring to is Novozymes' enzyme Acrylaway, which has been available globally since 2007.
As with Functional Technologies' yeast strains, Acrylaway's use has been proven in biscuits, crackers and snacks, but Novozymes has now confirmed the effectiveness of its enzyme in coffee and, most recently, French fry production.
The results of the industrial scale French fry trials were publicised in June and found that Acrylaway could reduce acrylamide by up to 50%.
Of course, enzymes have uses other than stopping acrylamide formation. One is flavour generation. This is one of the functions of Biocatalysts' enzyme Flavorpro 839MDP, which was launched in September.
The enzyme, a protease preparation containing endopeptidase and exopeptidase activities, can be used to hydrolyse proteins such as meat and fish to create specific flavours that can be added to bouillons, soups, sauces, snacks, pies and ready meals.
Also new in September was an enzyme complex from DuPont Nutrition & Health for improving the sensory quality of high-fibre bread.
"A consumer research study conducted in cooperation with Lindberg Research indicates that the majority of western Europeans understand the positive effect of fibre in the diet and are aware their fibre intake is generally too low," said Anne Host Stenbak, industry marketing manager at DuPont Nutrition & Health, in a statement.
"The only way to encourage consumers to eat more fibre is to raise the sensory quality of high-fibre foods. This is what Fiberline does."
DuPont claims Fiberline can strengthen the gluten structure and slow the staling process in wholemeal, wholegrain and added-fibre breads, so they gain a volume and softness similar to traditional white bread.
At Chr Hansen, the main focus for enzyme innovation is the roll-out of its second-generation fermentation produced chymosin Chy-Max M.
While this product first became available in 2009, there are still some approvals gaps on the global map most notably Japan.
"Chy-Max M is approved in Europe, and North and South America, but we're still awaiting approval from Japan, which is important for exports," said David Stroo, marketing director, enzymes and test kits, Chr Hansen.
Besides increasing geographical coverage, Chr Hansen is investigating new applications for the enzyme, one of them being reduced sodium cheeses.
"Sodium is very beneficial for flavour development, helps mask bitter off-flavours and maintain a firm texture," explained Stroo. "Therefore it's not surprising that two of the most common complaints about reduced sodium cheeses are around texture and the prevalence of bitter flavours."
He said that as a second-generation low proteolipid, Chy-Max M develops fewer bitter flavoured peptides, which helps cheese producers overcome flavour issues.
Aid or additive?
The European Commission (EC) is working towards establishing a positive list of enzymes, which means only enzymes on this list will be allowed to be sold or used in Europe.
As part of the process, the EC and Member States have started reflecting on the criteria.
Current legislation states almost all uses of enzymes in food processing are considered processing aid uses, and are thus not required to be labelled on final foods. This is because the enzymes are not functional in the final foods: either they are inactivated, or their substrate is exhausted, or the conditions for their activity do not exist any more in the final foods.
Under the current law, there are only two enzyme uses that are not considered processing aid uses. These are invertase in confectionery, and lysozyme in cheese making, both of which are authorised in the EU as food additives for these uses.
However, if the outcome of the current discussion is that the uses of food enzymes should not be classed as processing aid uses, enzymes would have to be declared on end product labels, with major implications.
"There would probably be some confusion, and communication about the benefits of enzymes in food production would probably be needed," said Youri Skaskevitch, secretary general of the Association of Manufacturers and Formulators of Enzyme Products (AMFEP).
One regulatory expert even suggested that the enzyme use categorisation discussion could ignite a debate about labelling genetically modified (GM) micro-organisms.
"Certain Member States may have woken up to the fact that some enzymes can have a residual role in helping to prolong shelf-life in finished products, for example. In that case, they would have to be declared, and that would open a real can of worms regarding GM origins," said the industry expert, who wished to remain anonymous.
AMFEP, however, appears confident that the EU is unlikely to deviate from its historic policy of considering almost all uses as processing aid uses.
"We expect the EU to continue applying the same criteria since enzymes continue to be used and perform in the same way they previously did and we look forward to clarification on this," said Skaskevitch. "Such continuity in the labelling rules would be in line with the legislator's intention not to disturb the market by implementing food enzyme regulation."