Furan is a colourless, volatile organic compound that is used in some chemical manufacturing industries and may also be found in low levels in some foods, most notably in foods that undergo thermal treatment such as canning or jarring. Furan, as well as methyl-substituted furan derivatives, 2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran, can form in foods through multiple pathways that involve different naturally-present precursor compounds (e.g. polyunsaturated fatty acids, sugars, ascorbic acid) that undergo thermal degradation or chemical rearrangement during food processing.

The chemical "furan" is different from "furans". "Furans" is an abbreviation of chlorinated dibenzofurans and are chemically related to a group of chemicals called dioxins. Dioxins and furans are environmental contaminants, not processing-induced food contaminants, and have distinctly different chemical structures and toxicities compared to furan.

Health Effects of Exposure to Furan

A limited number of studies have investigated the potential health effects in humans of dietary exposure to furan. Studies using experimental animals indicate that oral exposure to furan can cause liver toxicity and liver carcinogenicity. Additional investigations examining how furan causes carcinogenicity in experimental animals have provided evidence that severe liver toxicity typically occurs before there is evidence of carcinogenicity and, at lower doses more relevant to human exposure, furan does not readily cause genetic damage that would increase the risk of tumour formation. While some effects related to liver toxicity in experimental animals have been observed at relatively low doses, current dietary exposure estimations are considerably lower than even those levels.

The toxicity of methylated derivatives of furan, 2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran, is conservatively considered to be the same as furan. More information is needed about these compounds to fully understand their potential toxicity.

What is Health Canada Doing?

Health Canada's scientists have identified several formation pathways of furan in processed foods. Fully understanding how furan is formed in foods will be useful in developing ways to potentially control its formation. In addition, ongoing research by Health Canada scientists aims to further define the potential toxicity of 2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran as well as overall dietary exposure to furan and its methylated derivatives.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitor the concentrations of various chemicals in foods, including furan, 2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran.

Health Canada's updated Health Risk Assessment for Furan and Methylfurans, concluded that, with the possible exception of adults consuming high amounts of coffee (approximately 3 or more cups a day), dietary exposures to furan and total furan do not represent a health concern to Canadians, including children. The term 'total furan' refers to the sum of furan, 2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran whereas 'furan' refers only to the furan compound. Although individuals drinking more than three cups of coffee per day may be exposed to relatively higher levels of total furan, further studies are needed to characterize whether this poses a health concern. There is also evidence that furan and methylfuran concentrations in brewed coffee decrease through volatization with stirring and standing time, which were not accounted for in Health Canada's conservative exposure assessment. More information on what factors may contribute to furan and methylfuran reduction is still required.

Health Canada's dietary exposure estimates for furan and total furan, are comparable to those reported in the United States and Europe.

Health Canada will consider new information relating to the occurrence and reduction of these compounds in foods, as well as their toxicity, and continue to keep Canadians informed of any developments.

What Can You Do?

Health Canada recommends that Canadians follow Canada's food guide and eat a variety of healthy foods each day.

Given that coffee is expected to be the major contributor of both caffeine and total furan exposure among adults that consume large amounts of coffee, following Health Canada's existing recommendation that Canadians limit their consumption of caffeine will also help reduce exposure to total furan.

For More Information

To obtain an electronic copy of the August 2018 - Health Risk Assessment for Furan and Methylfurans, please contact our publications office or send an e-mail to hc.publications-publications.sc@canada.ca with the subject heading "HPFB BCS FURAN 2018-ENG".

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