What is acrylamide, and why should you care?

Acrylamide is a chemical found naturally in many foods. When these foods are processed at high temperatures, the levels of acrylamide tend to rise. This is of concern to health professionals because acrylamide has been identified as a possible carcinogen.

Acrylamide was among the chemicals on the Government of Canada’s Batch 5 Chemical Management Plans Challenge, launched on February 21, 2009. This challenge was issued to ensure that Canadians’ exposure to acrylamide from food sources is kept low as possible. Health workers in Canada were committed to working with health authorities in other countries to better understand how this chemical substance is formed in foods and its effect on the human body. Health Canada is also extending their efforts in collaborating with the food industry to be watchful of processed food production, ensuring that the acrylamide content in these foods is greatly reduced.

How is acrylamide formed?
Asparagines are a type of amino acid found in several fruits and vegetables such as nuts and potatoes. When foods that contain asparagines (in particular, starchy foods like potatoes and grains) are heated to high temperatures together with certain sugar substances, acrylamide may be formed. High-temperature cooking includes baking, frying, roasting, and broiling. Longer cooking times may also trigger the formation of acrylamide, especially when cooking at a temperature above 120 degrees Celsius.

The formation of acrylamide can be better understood by the Maillard reaction. In simple terms, the Maillard reaction is a mechanism known to produce that tasty crust and beautiful golden colour we’ve grown to appreciate in fried and baked foods. This reaction occurs during frying or baking, when there is a proper combination of lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins in foods.

Smoking has also been found to be a source of acrylamide, but scientists have yet to further investigate on this.

Foods that may contain acrylamide
The World Health Organization (WHO) first began to look at the dangers of acrylamide in 2002 after a study in Sweden was published linking it to certain cancers. They also studied common foods containing asparagines that are converted to acrylamide when heated:

Food

Serving

Acrylamide (mcg)

McDonalds french fries, large

6.2 oz.

82

Burger King french fries, large

5.7 oz.

59

KFC potato wedges, jumbo

6.2 oz.

52

Wendy’s french fries, biggie

5.6 oz.

39

Ore Ida french fries (baked)

3 oz.

28

Pringles potato crisps

1 oz.

25

Fritos corn chips

1 oz.

11

Cheerios

1 oz.

7

Honey Nut Cheerios

1 oz.

6

Boiled potatoes

4 oz.

less than 3

Water

8 oz.

0.12 (EPA limit)

 

The most recent studies by The Environmental Law Foundation conclude that ACR found in potato chips far exceeds the levels requiring warning labels for dangerous foods:
“Cape Cod Robust Russet potato chips exceeded the required warning level by 910 times,
while Kettle Chips Lightly Salted chips exceeded the level by 505 times.”
Conclusion: potato chips and french fries are two of the deadliest foods that you can eat!

Acrylamide and cancer
Acrylamide has been widely linked to cancer for many years. Several studies have proven that this chemical substance is a potential carcinogen as well as a neurotoxin. 

The connection between fried foods and cancer first caught the attention of  health experts in April 2002. During that time, a Swedish team of researchers announced that many common foods, especially those that are fried, contain a carcinogenic agent called acrylamide. Since then, several researchers have shown that acrylamide is present in many common foods.

After a study was conducted using rodent models to prove that exposure to acrylamide can increase our risk of developing cancer, The National Toxicology Program and theInternational Agency of Research on Cancer added acrylamide as a potential human carcinogen.

However, scientists do note the the difference in absorption rates between humans and rodents. A link between the intake of acrylamide and the risk of developing certain cancers on the esophagus, larynx, oral cavity, kidney, and breast was further investigated and showed no excess of tumors associated with acrylamide intake.

Henrik Frandsen, a senior scientist at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark conducted a study on acrylamide and breast cancer risk. While his research showed that acrylamide is a potential carcinogen, no recent studies have proven that it causes the development of cancers.

Acrylamide and breast cancer
Several years ago, a study was conducted of 100,000 women to find evidence linking acrylamide to breast cancer. The women were asked to record their daily dietary habits including the types of food they eat, the way they are cooked, and how often they eat them. This information was used to gauge their daily acrylamide intake. This particular study underwent a series of follow-ups over the last 20 years, and roughly 3,000 women developed breast cancer. There was no significant difference in the breast cancer incidence between women who reported high or low intakes of dietary acrylamide.

Acrylamide and nerve damage
Aside from being a potential carcinogen, several studies have demonstrated a link between acrylamide and nerve damage, including muscle weakness and impaired muscle coordination. This is most common in individuals who have had industrial exposure (large levels) to the chemical. 

New laboratory studies suggest that chronic dietary exposure to the chemical is capable of damaging nerve cells in the brain and could play a role in the development of neuro-degenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s. 

Acrylamide and other toxicity
Acrylamide has been found to cause chromosome damage in vitro and bone marrow damage in vivoIt is mutagenic to humans, capable of producing heritable (passed on from one generation to another) damage to germ cells. It is also a neurotoxin, a chemical substance known to cause disorders of the nervous system including fatigue, muscle weakness, tremors, and numbness of the extremities and other sensory defects. Evidence shows that this effect is reversible, but recovery may take some time.

Acrylamide can also cause blistering and peeling when it comes in contact with your skin.

While it may be impossible to eliminate acrylamide from your diet, there are way to reduce it. One of the easiest ways is to boil or steam foods, like potatoes and grains, that are known sources of acrylamide… and maybe skip the french fries!

 

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