by Marion Nestle
Jan 28 2010

The latest on acrylamide

The fuss about acrylamide continues.  This, you may recall is a carcinogen formed when foods containing sugars and the amino acid asparagine are cooked at high temperatures.  Acrylamide is formed during the Maillard reaction, which causes baked, fried, and toasted foods to turn attractively brown and taste yummy.

Obviously, acrylamide has been around in foods for a long time.  But now that everyone knows how bad it is, what should be done about it?

A new toxicology study provides estimates for an upper level of intake that can be considered safe: 2.6 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. This would be equivalent to 182 micrograms for a 70 kg human to prevent cancer.  Much higher levels are required to cause neurological problems: 40 micrograms per kg per day, or 2,800 micrograms per day for a 70 kg human.  But since you have no idea how much is in the foods you are eating, these figures don’t help much.

But maybe you don’t need to worry?  Even the lower of the toxic levels is much higher than intake levels estimated by health agencies.  The average exposure of adults to acrylamide in food has been estimated to be below 0.5 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight, which is five times lower than the upper limit considered safe.

That is somewhat reassuring but how come a European Expert Panel has unanimously decided to put acrylamide on the list of “substances of very high concern?”  This makes it sound as if acrylamide is well worth avoiding at any level of intake.

How to avoid?  A recent study points out that foods low in sugars and high in antioxidants have lower levels of acrylamide.  This translates into standard dietary advice.  Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food, and you can cross acrylamide off the list of food issues you need to spend much time worrying about.

  • One thing we do NOT want to do is follow Canada in their thinking: Acrylamide is bad, so let’s add the chemotherapy drug to the food that undoes the damage!

  • Anthro

    Sorry, Peggy, your link is full of unscientific opinion. Canada’s idea may or may not have merit, but the knee-jerk “Big Ag-Big Pharma” mantra cannot be applied automatically to anything that may sound odd to the untrained ear. I would have to do a lot more research on how and why Canada’s authorities came to this recommendation and find out whether or not it traces to a Monsanto sort of company or not.

    Prevention is all well and good, but it will not stop all (or even most) disease and millions are alive due to pharmaceuticals–myself (who has always eaten well and exercised) included.

  • Skip charred meat, and choose steamed veggies. This won’t only keep you safe from the perplexing acrylamide carinogen, but will keep you healthy in general…

  • Dan

    If acrylamide was as dangerous as they state, us molecular biologists would be dropping like flies, no? I’m literally exposed to it on a daily basis and in a much higher quanties than what is measureable in food. That exposure has been ongoing for 20+ years now. Granted, I don’t usually eat it.

    It should be noted that acrylamide is also detectable in some coffees, some olives, almonds (but apparently not peanuts), some cocoas (but apparently not chocolate), some sweet potatoes/squash (regardless of cooking methods), and some dried fruits (mostly prunes and pears) ( Interestingly, the variability of the measurements for identical foods is very high across measurements (look at the coffees and olives for example which vary from ND to 1000s ppb). Or Super G’s onion soup mix is 90 ppb while Lipton’s is 1184 ppb. Or some wheat baked crackers have 100s ppb while wheat breads have almost nothing. The acryalmide in many of these foods obviously isn’t a result of the Maillard reaction as several of these foods are never baked nor fried; there must exists a secondary source of acrylamides.

    It should also be noted that the doses of acrylamide that result in 10% of rodents showing tumors in the original published study was about 1000-fold higher than the average acrylamide consumption in humans. Also, as far as I’ve seen, only a single type of cancer has been tied to acrylamide consumption, and that cancer has a fairly low incidence. Interestingly, acrylamide is high in cigarette smoke, but acrylamide consumption does not raise the risk of lung cancer.

    As our ability to measure various compounds become more and more sensitive, we need to be careful to not assume that because we can detect a compound, that it is bioavailable or toxic. We cannot simply ban every item until it is proven safe. Besides, what is safe? If getting cancer from acrylamide consumption approaches my risk of being struck by lightening, is that safe enough? Or are we aiming for zero risk?

  • Why in cocoa and not in chocolate? (Yes, I know this question may reveal a personal preoccupation.)

    Should almonds and dried pears be avoided – surely not? And does the method of drying make a difference?

  • Mordy

    Hi Marion, speaking of foods cooked at high temperatures…is an oil at its “smoke point” dangerous to eat or breathe in? It’s confusing as well because all the oils seem to have different smoking points, and even within one particular oil, e.g. olive oil, there are different points depending upon how refined it is.
    If it is dangerous, should a food made with oil (say, fish with some olive oil rubbed on) be roasted or baked at an oven temperature that is below that of that oil’s smoke point so that it doesn’t heat to that temperature?

  • TMI

    Screw it. Acrylamides taste good.

    At some point you just have to take a step back and realize that it all goes back to “everything in moderation.” There’s simply too much analysis about what’s in food and whether or not it’s good for you coming from so many different directions that it’s too much for anyone to reasonably take in and adhere to without going absolutely crazy.

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  • William J. Waddell, M.D.

    Thank you for providing a balanced view on this issue. In particular, I appreciate your reference to the study on upper intake levels – too often, people forget that in toxicology, the dose is everything. Something that may indeed cause cancer at very high doses can easily be harmless at low doses. That probably explains why epidemiological studies always fail to link cancer risk to eating foods that contain acrylamide.
    I believe the reason the European Expert Panel wants to add acrylamide to its list of substances of high concern is that they are actually thinking about industrially manufactured acrylamide. Acrylamide is widely used as an industrial chemical – and almost everything we know about its toxicity to human at high doses comes from industrial accidents. In the official announcement by the ECHA ( , there is no reference to food at all.
    I think you may have misunderstood the relevance of anti-oxidants in the Italian study you cited: when certain cooking oils are heated repeatedly to high temperatures, they oxidize, which results in the formation of carbonyl compounds. The study showed that carbonyl compounds can react with asparagine (a common plant amino acid) in foods and form acrylamide. The authors suggest that if oil contains anti-oxidants, it does not form carbonyl compounds as easily and this reduces the acrylamide levels in the cooked food.
    Of course, eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables is a very good idea regardless.

    William J. Waddell, M.D.
    Professor and Chair, Emeritus
    Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
    School of Medicine University of Louisville
    Louisville, Kentucky

  • DennisP

    Eat things with acrylamide or not, that is the question, no? And so we agonize over whether to eat meat or toast or whatever. All this is what Michael Pollan writes about as our continuing angst. Far better, I think, not to worry about nutrients and “food science (scientism?)” and think about simple rules that will keep us healthy and out of harm’s way.

    Pollan’s little book Food Rules is an excellent little guide. I finished reading it (in an hour or two) a couple days ago. Reading it is probably a much more productive use of your time than worrying about nutrients. Some very good guide rules, all of which try to elucidate what he means by his fundamental rule “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Perhaps my favorite rule is “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead”.

  • far 2 many of us seem 2 b spendin a great deal of time agonizing over the most obscure of nutritional information prior 2 havin applied the very basic concepts of truly healthy eatin-fruits, veggies, no added salt or sugar, no transfats & NO junk food-not even in moderation. master that 1st,then u can go off explorin the finer points of nutrition. ur workin backwards.

  • FoodFitnessFreshair said:
    Skip charred meat, and choose steamed veggies.

    That sounds reasonable. But I hate most steamed veggies.

    The 50 Best Health Blogs

  • Well now I’m agonizing…I have been eating sooo many roasted vegetables this winter- organic sweets and carrots, squash – and all loaded with natural sugars and carmelized in the process.
    What to do.
    Steaming is not the same at all 🙁

  • FYI: cocoa powder/beans are roasted.

  • tomarone

    That is NOT the question. The question is how much. It’s listed I’ve seen in ‘ppm’. And, there are just a few with much, sweet potato fries, pringles, puffed veggies. Some breakfast cereals maybe, but the key is PPM.

  • tomarone

    Detect-ability is not the issue. It’s how much.

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  • zzz05

    we’re not seeing a lot of people getting chronic diseases from eating too many vegetables, roasted or not.

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  • Erik Cetrulo

    Drying is done at a low temperature. It’s safe except for the possibility of added preservatives such as sulfur dioxide.

  • Erik Cetrulo

    Just consume green tea extract and garlic oil which help to block the negative effects of acrylamides, and don’t worry about it too much.

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