Last updated on 17 April 2012

Furan: your questions answered

  • What is furan?

    Furan is a chemical used by industry to manufacture solvents and raw materials used in the synthesis of commercial compounds. It is present as a contaminant in air and tobacco smoke. Furan is also a process contaminant; it is produced in situ in foods and beverages due to the heat degradation of naturally-occurring sugars, polyunsaturated fatty acids and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) during cooking/processing. Furan has been found in foods and drinks, including coffee, jarred baby foods (other than processed cereal based), canned prunes, potato crisps and sweet popcorn.

  • What is the problem?

    Furan has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen. Although it is highly volatile, once formed in food as a result of heat treatment during cooking/processing, it cannot evaporate from an airtight sealed pack, pouch, can or jar until it is opened.

    External sites

    The Food Standards Agency has no responsibility for the content of external sites

  • What do we know about furan and its health risk?

    Furan has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen. However, very little is known about its effect on humans through the diet. The Agency's opinion is that until more is known about the health risks associated with furan, exposure should be as low as reasonably practicable.

    External sites

    The Food Standards Agency has no responsibility for the content of external sites

  • Is this a new risk?

    No. Furan appears to be formed in food by common food manufacturing practices. Humans are likely to have been exposed to furan in their diet for some considerable time, but probably more so since the preservation techniques of canning, jarring and modern packaging processes came into use.

  • How serious a risk is furan to human health?

    The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has stated that furan has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JEFCA) concluded that levels of dietary exposure to furan indicate a human health concern, and the major route of exposure to furan in the human population is through consumption of heat-treated foods.

    External sites

    The Food Standards Agency has no responsibility for the content of external sites

  • Can furan be removed from processed food?

    Furan occurs naturally as a result of the heat treating of certain types of foods, for example roast coffee, potato crisps, sweet popcorn and canned/ jarred foods. Therefore, it isn't possible to prevent furan from being produced. Due to the highly volatile nature of furan, most of it will evaporate when an airtight sealed pack/pouch, can or jar is first opened. Thereafter, any residual furan that may be present in the food may also evaporate over time, although the amount will be dependent on storage conditions, particularly temperature, which should be in accordance with manufacturers’ guidelines.

  • How can I minimise my intake of furan?

    The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded in its scientific report, Update on furan levels in food from monitoring years 2004-2010, that furan levels can be reduced in some foods through volatilisation, for instance by heating and stirring the contents of canned and jarred foods in an open saucepan. Furan levels in packets that are repeatedly opened and closed during use (such as packs of roast coffee) may also reduce in levels of furan throughout their shelf life, as furan is highly volatile. Furan will naturally evaporate from hot food or drink in an open container. The Food Standards Agency also recommends that consumers should follow Department of Health advice on eating a balanced diet.

    External sites

    The Food Standards Agency has no responsibility for the content of external sites

  • What is the Food Standards Agency doing about furan levels in processed food?

    The Agency is carrying out a rolling survey of the levels of furan in UK retail products that will continue during 2012-2014. Survey results are sent to EFSA, along with those from other EU member states, for risk assessment. The Agency meets with industry representatives, the European Commission and other member states to discuss appropriate ways to tackle furan in food.

  • Should people stop consuming any processed foods due to furan levels?

    The Agency does not advise people to change their dietary habits because of furan. However, we recommend that consumers follow Department of Health advice at NHS Choices on eating a balanced diet. For further dietary advice it is recommended you also consult a healthcare professional, for instance a state registered dietician or general practitioner.

  • What is the food industry doing about furan levels in processed food?

    As part of the international effort, the food industry is carrying out research to find ways of reducing the levels of furan in food.

  • What's being done internationally?

    The European Commission has recommended that member states continue to monitor the occurrence levels of furan in foods and, as with previous surveys, send the data to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to be collated with information and data received from other member states for risk assessment. Experts including the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives have concluded that levels of dietary exposure to furan indicate a human health concern, and therefore advise that exposure to this process contaminant in food should be as low as reasonably practicable.

  • Are there any limits set for furan in food?

    There are currently no regulatory limits for furan in food.

  • Will maximum limits for furan levels in food be set by the EC in the future?

    The Agency is unaware of any intention to set legal maximum limits for furan in food.

  • Is the Agency changing its advice to consumers as a result of the 2011-2012 surveillance findings?

    No. The levels of furan reported currently do not increase our concern about risk to human health, and the Agency has therefore not changed its advice to consumers.