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What is furan and why is it in baby foods?

Furan in baby foods

Well, I don’t have a baby! Fine, but I’ll stop you there, dear reader, since furan is a cause of concern for everybody, and not only babies. Although a vital hazard to infants and babies, furan is still a toxic and carcinogenic compound to humans!

But why not first discuss what furan is?

This is just a tiny molecule formed by thermal degradation of carbohydrates, dissociation of amino acids, and oxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Therefore, every thermal process in the food industry may be directly involved with this compound’s formation, including canning, cooking, roasting, baking, and sterilisation.

Canned food. Photo credit: LoveFood.

If the chemistry is not your subject, don’t even worry! I’ll easily explain why this thing called furan is not suitable for your body. Think of a black panther, a tremendously dangerous and agile animal capable of camouflage very well in the jungle. Well, furan has been the same for scientist so many years, an undetectable but hazardous compound.

Indeed, technology had to evolve to a significant level for us to start detecting furan in foods. This skill of being undetectable is mainly due to its high volatility (tendency to evaporate) and nearly weightless structure. Pure logic, the less the weight of the compound, the easier it can fly away!

The volatility is a material quality that describes how readily a substance vaporizes. Photo credit: PNGItem.

Is furan in foods? How does it work once in the organism?

Currently, though, human knowledge has progressed to a point where the Solar System’s colonisation is starting to become a regular discussion. With the present technology, it’ll be a shame if we can not trace properly a mere volatile compound that contaminates our babies’ food. For this reason, we can now easily identify it even at very low concentrations, and the curious thing is that it has now been detected in a variety of food products, and not only in those intended for infants and babies (see figure below).

Foods commodities where furan has been identified. Photo credit: FAO.

The way that this tiny enemy works is by getting into our bodies through ingestion or inhalation during food preparation. Once in our bodies, it passes through biological membranes (e.g., intestine, lungs) and is rapidly absorbed and extensively metabolised, producing toxic effects in the liver and kidneys.

Now that we know this troublesome element is toxic and that it’s been detected over time in foods, the question is, how do we avoid it?

The traditional method within the food manufacturing sector to avoid furan has always been to prepare or heat foods in open vessels so furan can volatilise freely. This technique has reported lower amounts of furan when compared to foods prepared in closed containers.

The same happens in the kitchen, the more exposed are the volatiles created during heating to free air, the more likely will fly away!

Open food vessel. Photo credit: BCH Cooking Systems.

Additionally to prepare foods in open vessels, reducing the concentration of the chemical precursors of furan have been also reported in the literature. They usually are organic acids, and unsaturated fatty acids, among others. Reducing their amount is ultimately translated into lower concentrations of furan.

Nevertheless, the crucial discovery for reducing furan concentrations during the last decade has been the use of non-thermal technologies such as high-pressure processing (HPP).

HPP is currently the most preferred and suitable non-thermal technology for furan avoidance, as it is capable of achieving microbial inactivation and great sensory attributes in foods without the use of heat.

Food processed with HPP has gained commercial popularity for the development of healthy and nutritious infant and baby food products with a fresh‐like taste, including pureed fruits and vegetables.


Canadian HPP baby food start-up. Photo credit: FoodNavigatorUSA.

Hence, if you, food curious, have kids or babies around, feed them fresh food with loads of vegetables and fruits because that will always be the best thing for them and their microbiota. But imagine that at some point you are in a rush and need to buy a ready-to-eat meal for your kid. In that case, I’ll try to be the coolest in the room by buying an innovative and even healthier HPP-treated baby meal.

With that said, I do also have to mention that strict controls have always been in place within the food industry to make sure that furan concentrations are within the authorized ranges. Therefore, a non-HPP processed baby food will still be totally safe.



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Pedro Rivero

(BSc, PhD)


I am a Food Science PhD candidate wishing to communicate my knowledge in this field through this blog and my social media.

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