The World Health Organization says it constitutes a ‘major concern.’
The European Food Safety Authority believes this chemical “potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups.”
The Food and Drug Administration is still conducting research to see if it poses a threat.
But in the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) sees no reason to hold back. On January 23 it launched its “go for gold” campaign to encourage consumers to avoid acrylamide when cooking at home.
It’s Lurking in Your Toast and Coffee
Acrylamide – which is also used in industry to makes dyes and plastics – first came to the attention of scientists and the public 20 years ago when cows in part of Sweden collapsed and died. Investigators discovered it was caused by contaminated drinking water originating from nearby construction work.
After this, scientists began looking at amounts generated in food.
If food is raw, acrylamide is not formed. It’s created when food is cooked above 120ºC. The higher the temperature and the longer the food is cooked, the greater the levels.
For a food to form acrylamide, it has to contain a protein called asparagine as well as carbohydrate.
The foods most likely to be contaminated with acrylamide are ones containing starches that are fried, baked, grilled, barbecued and toasted.
This includes potatoes, root vegetables, bread, chips, French fries, toast and pizza. It’s also found in coffee, breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits and crackers.
How Harmful Is It?
Acrylamide has not been proven to cause cancer in humans, but animal studies show an increased risk for endometrial, ovarian and kidney cancer.
Animal research also shows the chemical is toxic to DNA. This suggests that even a very low exposure could be enough to kick off cancer in susceptible people.
Some are not convinced that acrylamide poses a threat, however. Cambridge University statistics professor Sir David Spiegelhalter is one of them. “Even adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide,” he says, “would need to consume 160 times as much to reach a level that might cause increased tumors in mice.
“The FSA provide no estimate of the current harm caused by acrylamide, nor the benefit from any reduction due to people following their advice.”
Lowering Levels in Your Diet
So it’s an open question whether acrylamide is worth worrying about. Most of the cancer scare is based on the idea that even small-scale DNA damage can lead to cancer, so there’s no “safe threshold” of acrylamide consumption. Any way of lowering DNA damage seems sensible, especially when it’s so easy to do.
The UK’s FSA suggests switching away from starchy foods that are fried, baked and toasted. They should be boiled or steamed instead. Do not overcook or go beyond a light golden-yellow color – go for gold.
The darker a starchy food is cooked, the more acrylamide will be formed. Burnt starches have the highest levels.
Potatoes should not be stored in the fridge, as this leads to a chemical change that increases acrylamide. They also shouldn’t be stored for a long time before eating. If they have been hanging around, more starch is turned into sugar. This will increase acrylamide levels when cooked.
Other ways to cut down on the chemical are to soak potatoes before cooking and to parboil before roasting.
Cooking starchy foods longer on lower temperatures is better than cooking for shorter times at higher temperatures.
While acrylamide is probably low on the scale of risk, it’s easy to cut down on how much we eat, and the vast majority of foods that contain it do not benefit our health in any case. French fries and potato chips would be good ones to cut – unhealthy in almost every way, not only because of the overheated starches but the overheated oils as well. Not to mention they’re almost instantly turned into blood sugar.