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Acrylamide in Food: Should You Be Worried?

Is there a carcinogen lurking in your corn flakes?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
September 13, 2010
Episode #107

Last year, researchers came out with new guidelines for how much acrylamide you can safely consume. This announcement news caught many by surprise, most of whom had never even heard of acrylamide much less realized they were supposed to be worried about it. And, really, don’t we have enough to worry about already?

Should You Be Worried About Acrylamide in Food?

When I mentioned on my Facebook page that I was working on this article, Laurel wrote: “I don’t know what acrylamide is but I’m starting to get ‘worry overload.’ Plastics, BPA, pesticides…Whatever you eat, someone will find something wrong with it.”

Laurel has a point. There’s no end to the things we can worry about. Whether they’re all worth worrying about is another story. As a wise man once said, “Eating may be dangerous but not eating has been found to be fatal!”  In this article, I hope to put the acrylamide issue in perspective for you. 

What is Acrylamide?

Acrylamide is an industrial chemical used in waste-water treatment, paper and fabric manufacture, and chemistry labs. Anyone who uses acrylamide knows that it needs to be handled with great care. If ingested or inhaled in sufficient quantity, this stuff can cause nerve damage.  It’s also been shown to cause cancer in animals.

So, you can imagine everyone’s concern when it was discovered that many common food products, including cereal, coffee, French fries, and baked goods, contain acrylamide. You won’t find it listed on the ingredient list because acrylamide isn’t being added to these foods. But it turns out that small amounts of acrylamide form naturally when certain kinds of foods are roasted, toasted, baked, or fried.   

How Does Acrylamide Form in Foods?

Specifically, acrylamide is formed through a chemical reaction between sugar and arginine (an amino acid). Starchy foods like potatoes and grains have the greatest potential for acrylamide production. Coffee beans also develop a fair amount of acrylamide when they are roasted. In other words, humans have been consuming acrylamide for millenia—since they learned to roast potatoes over a fire. 

The primary sources of acrylamide in the typical modern diet are boxed cereals, French fries, potato chips, and coffee. You also create acrylamide when you cook food at home. Boiling or steaming don’t cause acrylamide formation, but baking, roasting, and frying do. And the higher the temperature and the longer the cooking times, the more acrylamide is likely to be formed. 

Now, I have to tell you that this was bad news for me, personally. I don’t eat a lot of French fries or potato chips (for obvious reasons) and I hardly ever eat packaged cereal. But I love roasted vegetables, especially when they’re deeply caramelized. I like my toast on the darker side too. And come December, when it’s time for my annual sugar cookie, I’ll be scanning the plate, looking for one that got left in the oven just a little too long.   That extra-brown cookie is going to be higher in acrylamide than its paler neighbor. But, for the reasons I outline below, I’m not too worried about it.

How Much Acrylamide is Safe?

If you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, acrylamide intake probably poses a fairly minimal risk to your well-being. If, on the other hand, you live on fried, processed, and junk foods, you’ve probably got bigger things to worry about.

The average-sized person eating a typical diet takes in between 25 and 30mcg of acrylamide a day, which, according to toxicologists, is well below the threshold of safety. And if you don’t eat a lot of French fries, potato chips, and ready-to-eat-cereal, you’re probably getting much less than the average. 

I’m not saying that acrylamide is nothing to worry about. But I think we need to put the threat in perspective. Here’s my assessment of the risk.  If you’re eating a reasonably healthy, balanced diet, including lots of fresh vegetables and other whole foods, I think that acrylamide probably poses a pretty minimal risk to your well-being. If, on the other hand, you live on fried, processed, and junk foods, your acrylamide intake may be closer to the danger zone—but, honestly, that may be the least of your worries.

Nutrition Diva’s Bottom Line on Acrylamide

I’m not going to stop eating roasted vegetables or drinking coffee, because I think the benefits of these foods clearly outweigh the small risks. I will continue to limit my intake of French fries, potato chiips, and sugar cookies, however—but mostly to avoid the trans fats and sugar they contain. As a bonus, limiting my intake of these types of foods keeps my acrylamide intake fairly low (and maybe makes up for that extra-dark sugar cookie.)

But as the World Health Organization observed, we may not all have the same threshold for risk. To some people, even a very low risk of harm is unacceptable. Although I personally have decided that the threat from acrylamide doesn’t warrant a change in my otherwise healthy eating habits, I can understand if you want to take steps to minimize your acrylamide exposure.

How to Avoid Acrylamide

Food scientists are working on new techniques that will allow manufacturers to reduce the amount of acrylamide in processed and packaged foods. In the meantime, if you're concerned about acrylamide, I suggest focusing on the changes that will have the biggest impact on your intake. By far, the biggest things you can do to reduce your exposure are:

  1. Don't eat French fries or potato chips. This is good advice, no matter which way you cut it.

  2. Don't eat burned or darkly-browned toast or baked goods. Obviously, the more often you eat toast or baked goods, the more this matters.

  3. Don't smoke or breathe second-hand smoke. Cigarette smoke is primary non-food source of acrylamide.

  4. Moms, skip the teething biscuits. The amount of acrylamide in teething biscuits is moderate but when you consider how small babies are and the fact that children tend to be more vulnerable to these sort of toxins, I think it makes more sense to avoid them. Try a piece of frozen bagel (untoasted), instead.

Below, I’ve included some links to more information about acrylamide and guidelines from the FDA and Canadian Health Services on how to minimize your exposure.

You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page. I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

Resources

Acrylamide Questions and Answers (FDA)

Frequently Asked Questions about Acrylamide in Foods (WHO)

Acrylamide and Cancer Risk (National Cancer Institute)

Reducing Acrylamide Exposure (FDA)

Reducing Acrylamide Exposure (Canadian Health Services)

French Fries image courtesy of Shutterstock

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