If warnings about fat, sodium, and empty calories did not stop you from eating your favorite fried and starchy snack foods, how about warnings about acrylamide? Acrylamide made headlines in 2002 when researchers first found high levels of acrylamide, a potentially cancer-causing agent, in a number of common foods. But, what is acrylamide? And should you avoid foods containing it?
A Natural By-product of Cooking Certain Foods
Acrylamide is an odorless, colorless chemical agent used to manufacture certain chemicals, plastics and dyes, which may have the potential for causing cancer in humans. A Swedish study was the first to report that frying or baking at high temperatures (greater than 248°F [120ºC]) for prolonged periods of time could create acrylamide in many types of food, particularly starchy foods, such as:
- French fries
- Potato chips
- Certain types of fried or baked bread
- Some processed cereals
Researchers in Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, and the US conducted food analyses and came up with similar findings to the Swedish study. According to a survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a large order of fast food French fries had at least 300 times more acrylamide than what the US Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of water. The amount of acrylamide varied according to the type of food and, in some cases, the brand of a particular food. French fries had one of the highest amounts of acrylamide.
Dietary Acrylamide and Cancer
Scientists have concluded that acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory rats when ingested in large amounts. And large quantities of acrylamide have been found to cause nerve damage in humans. But so far, there is no evidence that the amounts of acrylamide in cooked foods can cause cancer or other harmful effects when ingested by people.
According to the American Council on Science and Health, human cancer risk from dietary acrylamide cannot be adequately assessed when based exclusively on high-dose studies in laboratory animals. They believe that the acrylamide food studies probably caused unnecessary anxiety in consumers.
Study Finds Absence of Evidence
One study found no evidence that eating foods high in acrylamide increases the risk of cancer of the colon, bladder, and kidney. In the study, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden compared the diets of close to 1,000 cancer patients and more than 500 healthy adults over a 5-year period.
The researchers found that people who ate the most acrylamide were at no greater risk of cancer than those who ate less. They also found that people who ate moderate to high levels of acrylamide had no higher risk of any of the types of cancer studied. The researchers note, however, that the relation of risk to acrylamide content in all foods could not be established.
A similar study also failed to find any relationship between acrylamide intake and colon cancer in women. Also, a study looking at acrylamide and breast cancer in Swedish women did not find any association between the two.
But Is This Evidence of Absence?
Although research provides some evidence that there is no link between dietary intake of acrylamide and major types of cancer, more research is necessary. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is now working to develop a better understanding of how acrylamide is chemically formed, how to measure its presence in food, and how it functions in the human body.
What Is a Consumer to Do?
Many consumers feel reassured by the two Harvard studies on dietary acrylamide and cancer. Others remain somewhat wary and have cut back on their consumption of fries, potato chips, and other known acrylamide-containing foods. What is a consumer to do?
When it comes to acrylamide in food, keep the following points in mind:
- French fries, potato chips, crackers, and other high-acrylamide foods are often high in calories and low in nutritional value. High consumption of these foods has been linked to increased cancer risk for reasons that have nothing to do with acrylamide. People who eat lots of these foods tend to crowd other foods off the plate. Foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains, which have been shown to provide protection against certain types of cancer. Eating a lot of fat and calories also contributes to obesity, which can increase the risk for many cancers.
If you are concerned about cancer risk:
- Increase your consumption of plant foods, especially a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Limit your consumption of fried, fatty, and salty foods.
- Get regular physical activity.
- Maintain a healthful weight.
- Moderate your consumption of alcohol.
- Talk to your doctor about the best ways to help you quit smoking.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and regulatory agencies of the US, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Germany have not recommended any changes in dietary habits on the basis of the current evidence concerning acrylamide in food. The FDA and the scientific community will continue to evaluate data and determine appropriate recommendations, as necessary.
Center for Science in the Public Interest
US Food & Drug Administration
Dietitians of Canada
Acyrlamide and cancer risk. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/acrylamide.html. Updated March 10, 2016. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Acrylamide in food: Is it a real threat to public health? American Council on Science and Health website. Available at: http://acsh.org/news/2002/02/01/acrylamide-in-food-is-it-a-real-threat-to-public-health. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Acrylamide in food and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/acrylamide-fact-sheet. Updated July 29, 2008. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Acrylamide questions and answers. US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/ChemicalContaminants/ucm053569.htm. Updated October 10, 2016. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Mucci L, Dickman P, Steineck G, Adami HO, Augustsson K. Dietary acrylamide and cancer of the large bowel, kidney, and bladder: absence of an association in a population-based study in Sweden. Br J Cancer. 2003;88(1):84-89.
Mucci L, Sandin S, Bälter K, Adami HO, Magnusson C, Weiderpass E. Acrylamide intake and breast cancer risk in Swedish women. JAMA. 2005;293(11):1326-1327.
Risk factors for breast cancer. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T901178/Risk-factors-for-breast-cancer. Updated October 28, 2016. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Stay healthy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/healthy.html. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Tareke E, Rydberg P, Karlsson P, Eriksson S, Törnqvist M. Analysis of acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in heated foodstuffs. J Agri and Food Chem. 2002;50(17):4988-5006.
Last reviewed April 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 4/5/2017