by Marion Nestle
Sep 2 2009

Acrylamide, sigh

I don’t know what to say about acrylamide.  Acrylamide is the powerful carcinogen that gets formed when carbohydrates and proteins are cooked together at high temperature, as in dark toast, French fries, and potato chips.    I just can’t figure out how bad it is, and I like my toast well toasted.  But:

Canada recently added acrylamide to its list of toxic substances.  The European Union has just listed it as a hazardous chemical “of high concern.”

The FDA, trying to figure out what to say about acrylamide, is asking for public comment:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requesting comments and scientific data and information on acrylamide in food. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during certain types of high temperature cooking. FDA is seeking information on practices that manufacturers have used to reduce acrylamide in food and the reductions they have been able to achieve in acrylamide levels. FDA is considering issuing guidance for industry on reduction of acrylamide levels in food products.

The FDA offers an information page on acrylamide.  This comes with a Q and A and information about avoiding acrylamide when eating or cooking.

How serious a problem is acrylamide?  Nobody knows, really, and the research is mixed. According to recent reports, Dutch investigators say that acrylamide has no relationship to brain or lung cancer.  So that’s some relief.

Update, September 3: No surprise, but surveys show the public doesn’t know much about acrylamide.  With so much uncertainty, this is a particularly tough one to deal with.

Update, September 5: Food Production Daily has produced a nifty interactive timeline of events in the history of troubles with acrylamide, since it was first suspected of being a problem in 2002.


  • Janet Camp

    One more reason to eat foods in their natural state! This is one that is easy enough to avoid until the verdict is in. Frying just isn’t a natural condition, although I admit to a fair amount of sauteing and a love of caramelized onions; does this count as one of the “types of high temperature cooking”?

  • DF

    I don’t know how much acrylamide is in food, and it might be at low enough levels to be safe, but as a research associate in a biochemistry laboratory (acrylamide is used in making those pretty gels you see on TV forensics shows), I was taught many years ago to be very careful when handling acrylamide as it is carcinogenic. From the Material Safety Data Sheet:

    LD50 LC50 Mixture:LD50 (ORAL RAT) IS 124 MG/KG
    Routes of Entry: Inhalation:YES Skin:YES Ingestion:YES
    Reports of Carcinogenicity:NTP:NO IARC:YES OSHA:NO
    Health Hazards Acute and Chronic:ACUTE: HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED, INHALED, OR ABSORBED THROUGH SKIN. CAUSES EYE AND SKIN IRRITATION. MAY CAUSE NERVOUS SYSTEM DISTURBANCES. CHRONIC: LABORATORY EXPERIMENTS HAVE SHOWN MUTAGENIC EFFECTS. OVEREXPOSURE MAY CAUSE REPRODUCTIVE DISORDERS BASED ON TESTS WITH LABORATORY ANIMALS. CARCINOGEN.
    Explanation of Carcinogenicity:SUBSTANCE LISTED WITH IARC AS A SUSPECTED CARCINOGEN.
    Effects of Overexposure:EYE AND SKIN IRRITATION, NERVOUS SYSTEM DISTURBANCES.

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Inoculated Mind

    I remember when acrylamide was discovered in french fries – it caused a stir, but when I read the research the compounds were found at parts-per-billion levels, it didn’t sound so scary anymore. I think we’re more at risk from the caloric content of many fried foods than the acrylamide levels. We also eat a lot of harmful substances, especially in vegetables, so I wonder if they will also be labeled as hazardous or toxic substances that need to be regulated?

    A little note: the acryamide seems to be produced by cooking carbohydrates and proteins together, but at temperatures above what water-cooking is capeable of. Oil can get much hotter so that’s why we find them in fried foods. But I bet something that is baked might also have them.

  • http://thescientistgardener.blogspot.com/ Matt

    I don’t know about this… Humans have been eating burned food for tens and tens of thousands of years. How bad could it be?

    As far as the MSDS of acrylamide goes – those documents are notorious for listing every possible negative consequence of exposure to a chemical and giving no real, practical indication of risk. The MSDS of water includes negative effects and the one of table salt is downright scary.

  • http://myyearwithout.blogspot.com/ my year without

    Double whammy! Now that I know that French fries have sugar (dextrose) AND acrylamide, I’ll have to nix the idea of ever savoring another deep fried potato again. Fortunately, I have my sweet potato French fries with coconut oil to fall back on at home. They are both sweet AND healthy.

  • Janet Camp

    I have to post again because now that I’ve read it, I am totally alarmed that coffee (the roasting of the beans, not the brewing of) is on the list of practices that produce this stuff! Yikes, I thought I was exempt, but alas I’m a latte devotee for the last 35 years! I hope the research is confirmed that the levels aren’t high enough to be scary.

  • Sheila

    Never thought we would have to worry about a LD50 for well-toasted toast!

  • http://www.dancingdogblog.com Mary Haight

    I’ve thought about this issue since it was announced that chefs were also in immediate danger from exposure to carcinogenic effects produced when cooking oils (canola) at high temperatures and will be interested to see how significant the acrylamide effect on foods is.

  • albert

    You folks are hilarious. You are now scared over toast. Well, I guess its now your civic duty to cause as much alarm as possible, over TOAST! And of course, since bread is now a carcinogen, we must tax it. Right? Now please line up to chastise me over my extremism.

  • David Lineback

    Acrylamide occurs in many foods prepared by heating (frying, baking, grilling, roasting, toasting) and commonly consumed. It is important to understand that ever since acrylamide was first discovered in food in 2002, the food industry, health and regulatory agencies across the globe and the scientific community have collaborated to better understand its formation and exposure. With all the research conducted thus far, little or no scientific evidence has shown that the amount of dietary acrylamide has a potential adverse effect on human health. Furthermore, virtually all nations involved in this important issue continue to recommend that people not change diets but continue to use the dietary recommendations from their national food authorities. See Dietary Guidelines for Americans (http://www.mypyramid.gov/).

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