The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Acrylamide Update

Acrylamide Update

Food Safety Update

February 21, 2010

From French fries to ice cream, there’s no denying our love affair with fried foods – in spite of the fact that we know they’re bad for us. But in addition to contributing to heart disease and cholesterol problems, does eating fried food also cause cancer? 

In 2002, a study from the Swedish National Food Administration and Stockholm University found trace levels of the chemical acrylamide in some baked and fried foods. Acrylamide, a well-known industrial chemical with several commercial uses, has been found to cause cancer in animals when exposed to the chemical at very high doses.

Unlike melamine, another industrial chemical, acrylamide is not added to food. However, it has probably been present in foods as long as we have been cooking them. When starchy foods are baked or fried at high temperatures, acrylamide develops from a combination of sugars and an amino acid that are naturally present in the food.

Today, advances in technology enable scientists to test for very low levels of the compound in food. Foods made from plants, like potato products, are more likely to contain acrylamide. The FDA estimates average daily exposure to acrylamide at about .4 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight. Thirty-eight to 40% of the calories we consume daily likely come from foods containing acrylamide.

Although acrylamide is listed as a probable human carcinogen, studies have not shown an increased risk for most cancers. There currently is insufficient scientific evidence concerning whether acrylamide represents a potential health problem at the amounts commonly consumed, and more studies are underway to determine acrylamide’s potential risk. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) will conduct the second risk assessment of acrylamide this month, and the results may enable safe levels to be calculated – if it turns out there is a health problem which necessitates calculation of safe levels of intake. 

In the meantime, the FDA recommends that consumers concentrate on meeting the dietary guidelines and choosing a caloric level that fits their needs. Other major countries in the world continue to make similar recommendations based on the normal dietary recommendations of their official agencies. Consumers do not have to stop eating fried foods either.

“They may want to reduce their consumption of fried goods, if it is high. This already is part of most dietary recommendations because of the fat/salt content of many fried foods,” says Dave Lineback, PhD, Former Director, Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, University of Maryland at College Park. “But there is no scientific evidence currently available that warrants a change in an individual's diet.”

Lineback says that it will not be possible to eliminate acrylamide from all foods or even to greatly reduce them in some foods. In other foods, it will be feasible to reduce the acrylamide content. This is already being done by the food industry where it is possible and involves both a combination of ingredient changes and processing changes. There is no one approach that works for all foods. 

“Mitigation will proceed by studying each class of food – or each food – individually to determine if reduction in its acrylamide content is possible without changing the safety or acceptability of the food product,” says Lineback.

Julie Miller Jones, PhD, CNS, LN, Distinguished Scholar Professor Emeritus of Food & Nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, says that retailers can help consumers reduce their exposure to acrylamide by instructing them to lightly toast food and to avoid overbrowning/overcooking food and using extremely high temperatures. When grilling, food should be turned frequently to minimize charring. If charring occurs, those portions should be cut away. 

Moreover, parboiling certain foods before they are put on the grill can also be a strategy to minimize cook time and decrease the occurrence of acrylamide in the final product. When making yeast bread, longer fermentations can have the same mitigating result. And storing potatoes in a cool, dry, dark place – instead of the refrigerator – is a good idea as well.

“Consumers should strive to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and maintain a healthy weight. These are the most important strategies for health,” adds Miller Jones.