Acrylamide is a chemical that sometimes forms in foods cooked at high temperatures for long period of times. Frying, roasting, and baking can lead to its production. Acrylamide forms from sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) that is naturally found in food.
Acrylamide is found mainly in plant foods, such as potato dishes, grain dishes, and coffee. Acrylamide is generally not a problem in high-protein foods, such as dairy, meat, and fish. Potato chips and French fries seem to contain the highest levels of acrylamide.
Research, so far, has not found acrylamide in food cooked at temperatures below 120º C, even in boiled foods. Levels in organic foods and nonorganic foods cooked for the same length of time and using the same cooking method will contain the same amount of acrylamide.
Acrylamide also is formed during the production of plastics, grouts, glues, dyes, paper, water treatment products (in the form of polyacrylamide and at very low levels), and cosmetics. It also is found in cigarette smoke.
Animals exposed to high levels of acrylamide develop cancer. Rats and mice have developed various tumors when exposed to acrylamide, including in the testes and adrenal glands. People exposed to acrylamide at work have developed nerve damage. Research has not found any correlation between humans working in industries involving exposure to acrylamide and development of cancer to date. Other incidences of substances were shown carcinogenic in animals, but not in humans. However, further research is needed to determine if this is the case with acrylamide.
The World Health Organization states that, “It is established practice to assume that an animal carcinogen is potentially carcinogenic to humans unless proven otherwise. Such proof—which does not exist for acrylamide—could be that the mechanism by which the substance causes animal tumours is not relevant to humans.”
Toxicology studies have shown that rodents have faster absorption rates of acrylamide than humans. In rats, acrylamide seems to have a similar potency to other carcinogens formed through certain cooking techniques. However, levels of acrylamide in the average diet are probably higher than levels of other carcinogens.
A Danish cohort study found that women with higher levels of acrylamide bound to their blood hemoglobin had a statistically significant increase in risk of estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer. This finding was in agreement with a questionnaire-based cohort study completed in the Netherlands that found a correlation between endometrial and ovarian cancer with acrylamide exposure. Another study completed in the Netherlands found a link between renal cell carcinoma and acrylamide exposure.
At this time, the US Food and Drug Administration has not determined the public health impact of the doses of acrylamide found in food. The World Health Organization points out that it is very important to cook foods sufficiently to destroy food-poisoning bacteria, but it is also important to avoid overcooking foods. It is best, for a number of reasons, to avoid fried and fatty foods, but it is not necessary to strictly avoid any food products secondary to acrylamide content at this time. Further research is necessary to determine how acrylamide is formed in food, what impact acrylamide might have on our health, and how we might reduce our exposure to acrylamide.
Blanching potatoes before frying them and drying them in a hot air oven after frying may decrease acrylamide levels, as does soaking potatoes in water for 15-30 minutes before frying or roasting. Lightly toasting bread produces less acrylamide than toasting it to a dark-brown color. Roasted coffee beans contain acrylamide, but coffee brewed at home or in a restaurant generally does not.
References and recommended readings
National Cancer Institute, US National Institutes of Health. Acrylamide in food and cancer risk. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/risk/acrylamide-in-food. Accessed November 10, 2010.
US Dept of Health and Human Services, US Food and Drug Administration. Acrylamide questions and answers. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodContaminantsAdulteration/ChemicalContaminants/Acrylamide/ucm053569.htm. Accessed November 10, 2010.
US Dept of Health and Human Services, US Food and Drug Administration. Additional information on acrylamide, diet, and food storage and preparation. Available at:
http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodContaminantsAdulteration/ChemicalContaminants/Acrylamide/ucm151000.htm. Accessed November 10, 2010.
World Health Organization. Frequently asked questions—acrylamide in food. Available at: http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/chem/acrylamide_faqs/en/index.html. Accessed November 10, 2010.
Review Date 1/11