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Acrylamide Intake and Cancer Risk
By Jessica Levings, MS, RDN

Acrylamide and its alleged dangers have been frequenting the news lately. It initially made headlines in April 2002 when Swedish scientists reported finding the chemical in a variety of fried and oven-baked foods. It again made the news throughout 2016 and in 2017 when a United Kingdom (UK) study found higher than ideal levels of acrylamide intake in the UK population.

Acrylamide forms during high-temperature cooking such as frying, baking, or broiling when certain amino acids (eg, asparagine) are in the presence of reducing sugars like glucose and fructose.1 Studies on rats and mice given large doses of acrylamide in drinking water have linked acrylamide exposure with several types of cancers.2-4 Although human studies linking acrylamide intake with cancer are still incomplete, the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider acrylamide a probable human carcinogen based on the animal findings.

Furthermore, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations deem acrylamide levels in foods a major concern and suggest more research is needed on the risk of dietary acrylamide exposure.5 In January 2017, the UK's Food Standards Agency launched a national "Go for Gold" campaign encouraging UK consumers to reduce acrylamide intake, after results from the Total Diet Study estimated higher than ideal intakes of acrylamide from a variety of foods.6

Longer cooking times and cooking temperatures above 248° F have been linked to acrylamide development,7,8 as well as nonenzymatic browning (ie, the Maillard reaction).9 The main sources of acrylamide exposure are thought to be food and cigarette smoke.10 According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, acrylamide is present in approximately 40% of the American diet. The FDA estimates that the main sources include potato products (primarily French fries and potato chips), coffee, and grain-based foods (such as breakfast cereals, cookies, and toast), although the FDA doesn't recommend reducing intake of healthful grain products, such as whole grain cereals, as a means of reducing acrylamide intake.

The FDA also doesn't suggest reducing vegetable intake since vegetables (other than potatoes) cooked at high temperatures haven't been found to be major sources of acrylamide. Acrylamide typically isn't associated with meat, dairy, or seafood products, nor is it usually found in raw plant-based foods or foods cooked by steaming or boiling. However, the FDA's 2005 Total Diet Study also identified acrylamide in high-moisture, lower temperature foods such as prune juice and canned ripe black olives, suggesting the chemical is found in a wide variety of food products.11 Internal FDA studies found frying to cause the highest acrylamide formation, followed by roasting potato pieces and then baking whole potatoes. Boiling potatoes and microwaving whole potatoes with the skin on wasn't found to produce acrylamide.

The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates an acceptable level of acrylamide exposure in drinking water. While the FDA regulates the amount of residual acrylamide allowed in materials, such as food packaging, coming into contact with food, there aren't any guidelines regulating how much acrylamide can be in the food itself.

Tips for RDs
Given the widespread presence of acrylamide in foods, it isn't feasible to eliminate acrylamide from one's diet, and cutting out one or two foods wouldn't likely have a significant effect on overall acrylamide exposure, although there are ways to decrease exposure. Counseling clients on reducing acrylamide intake should include adopting a healthful eating pattern consistent with the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which focus on consuming a variety of vegetables from all subgroups, limiting coffee intake to three to five 8-oz cups per day, eating low-fat and fat-free dairy, and consuming various protein foods. Dietitians also can counsel clients about lifestyle-related factors, such as smoking, contributing to acrylamide exposure.

For RDs working with restaurants and foodservice providers, the FDA released a Guidance for Industry in March 2016 to help growers, manufacturers, and foodservice operators lower acrylamide levels in certain foods.12 For potatoes, the Guidance document suggests selecting varieties low in acrylamide precursors, handling potatoes with care, and avoiding cold temperatures. For cereal-based foods, the Guidance recommends using wheat grown with sufficient soil sulfate, replacing ammonium bicarbonate in cookies and crackers with other leavening agents, and adding sugar coatings to breakfast cereals only after toasting.

Other tips to reduce acrylamide exposure in plant-based foods include the following: 
• Store raw potatoes in a dark, cool place to prevent sprouting. Potatoes stored in the refrigerator can lead to increased acrylamide during cooking.  
• Decrease cooking time and/or temperature.
• Blanch potatoes before frying and/or dry potatoes in a hot air oven after frying.
• Cook starchy foods such as potatoes, root vegetables, and breads to a golden yellow color or lighter when frying, baking, toasting, or roasting.
• Follow cooking instructions when frying or oven-heating packaged foods such as French fries and roasted potatoes to avoid overcooking. 
• Boil or microwave whole potatoes with the skin on, instead of frying potato pieces or slices.
• If frying or roasting potatoes, soak raw potato slices in water for 15 to 30 minutes before cooking.
• Toast bread to a light brown color and avoid very brown areas.
• Reduce overall intake of fried foods.

— Jessica Levings, MS, RDN, is a freelance writer and owner of Balanced Pantry, a consulting business helping companies develop and modify food labels, conduct recipe analysis, and create nutrition communications materials. Learn more at www.balancedpantry.com, Twitter @balancedpantry, and Facebook.com/Balancedpantry1.

1. Mottram DS, Wedzicha BL, Dodson AT. Acrylamide is formed in the Maillard reaction. Nature. 2002;419(6906):448-449.

2. Dearfield KL, Abernathy CO, Ottley MS, Brantner JH, Hayes PF. Acrylamide: its metabolism, developmental and reproductive effects, genotoxicity, and carcinogenicity. Mutat Res. 1988;195(1):45-77.

3. Dearfield KL, Douglas GR, Ehling UH, Moore MM, Sega GA, Brusick DJ. Acrylamide: a review of its genotoxicity and an assessment of heritable genetic risk. Mutat Res. 1995;330(1-2):71-99.

4. Friedman M. Chemistry, biochemistry, and safety of acrylamide. A review. J Agric Food Chem. 2003;51(16):4504-4452.

5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. World Health Organization. Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, sixty-fourth meeting, Rome, 8-17 February 2005: Summary and Conclusions. ftp://ftp.fao.org/es/esn/jecfa/jecfa64_summary.pdf. Published 2005.

6. Food Standards Agency. Families urged to 'go for gold' to reduce acrylamide consumption. https://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2017/15890/families-urged-to-go-for-gold-to-reduce-acrylamide-consumption. Updated January 23, 2017.   

7. Gertz C, Klostermann S. Analysis of acrylamide and mechanisms of its formation in deep-fried products. Eur J Lipid Sci Technol. 2002;104(11):762-771.

8. Rydberg P, Eriksson S, Tareke E, et al. Investigations of factors that influence the acrylamide content of heated foodstuffs. J Agric Food Chem. 2003;51(24):7012-7018.

9. Stadler RH, Blank I, Varga N, et al. Acrylamide from Maillard reaction products. Nature. 2002;419(6906):449-450.

10. National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide in food and cancer risk. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/acrylamide-fact-sheet#r10. Updated July 29, 2008.

11. US Food and Drug Administration. Total diet study.  https://www.fda.gov/food/foodscienceresearch/totaldietstudy/default.htm. Updated April 8, 2016.

12. US Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for industry acrylamide in foods. https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/ChemicalContaminantsMetalsNaturalToxinsPesticides/UCM374534.pdf. Published March 2016.