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The Potential Danger of Acrylamide
By Beth W. Orenstein

This chemical in foods has been shown to cause cancer in mice but more research is needed to determine its risk in humans.

Did you know that if clients broil, fry, toast, bake, or barbecue starchy foods, such as bread and potatoes, they can increase their intake of the chemical acrylamide? The more the food browns, the more acrylamide is present.

When researchers gave lab animals acrylamide in their drinking water, they developed cancer. The question is: Is acrylamide a cancer risk for humans as well? Toxicology studies show that humans and rodents absorb acrylamide at different rates.1

Acrylamide is used to manufacture plastics, including food wraps, papers and dyes, and in water treatment products and cosmetics. Cigarette smoke also is a major source of the chemical.

The FDA has been studying the issue since acrylamide was discovered in food in 2002, but it has taken no official position. Meanwhile, the FDA is helping farmers, producers, and foodservice personnel reduce acrylamide in food, says Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. 

The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have stated that acrylamide levels in foods are a “major concern.” However, they said more research is needed.

Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority brought the acrylamide issue back to the forefront when it warned that the risk to people, especially children, may be greater than previously believed.

Conflicting Views
Dietitians and nutritionists are divided on the acrylamide issue. Some believe people should make a concerted effort to reduce consumption of acrylamide-containing foods, while others say it’s much ado about nothing.

Melinda Overall, Adv Dip, Nut Med, a nutritionist and lecturer in nutritional medicine in Sydney, Australia, is in the “avoid acrylamide” camp. Her thinking is that while the level of acrylamide in food may be safe, “when you take into account other ways people are exposed, such as from food wrapping and cigarette smoke, their bodies can become burdened with toxicity.” She also says it’s “better to be safe than sorry.”

Overall recommends people avoid foods known to have high levels of acrylamide such as potato chips and baked goods, such as cookies and cakes, heavily toasted bread, and coffee. She also recommends people practice safe cooking methods. High-temperature cooking methods, such as frying, baking, and broiling, produce acrylamide; steaming and boiling produce less. “It’s always better to steam starchy vegetables than roast them in oil,” Overall says. “And I tell people: Don’t brown your food too heavily.”

Rick Hall, MS, RDN, FAND, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State University, believes the fuss over acrylamide is a lot of hype. “While there seems to be consensus by several organizations that acrylamide is likely to be a human carcinogen, there’s still a lack of evidence that the amount found in commonly eaten foods leads to cancer,” he says. Hall believes that dietitians must base their recommendations on the evidence, and the final verdict on acrylamide is not yet in. “My recommendation to clients is the same as it is to other registered dietitian nutritionists: Don't panic,” Hall says. 

Hall suggests clients limit the amount of foods known to be high in acrylamide, such as french fries, but he does so for reasons other than the cancer risk. “General guidelines for making better food choices, such as eating copious amounts of vegetables and fruits while reducing fried foods, will likely result in significant reductions of acrylamide while at the same time increasing known cancer-fighting nutrients,” he says. 

Mills agrees that the best advice is to follow dietary guidelines and include a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in the diet and limit fats. If you eat a variety of foods and use different cooking methods, you’ll consume less acrylamide, she says.

Doug Cook, RDN MHSc, CDE, author of Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies, in Toronto, also believes more research is needed to settle the matter. “We need to look at different levels of consumed acrylamide and health outcomes before any definite answers can be given,” he says, noting that if people follow healthful eating guidelines they will keep their acrylamide consumption low by default. Foods that have the greatest amount of acrylamide, such as those that are deep fried, are unhealthful for other reasons as well, he says. Like Mills, Cook says dietitians should encourage clients to eat fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and to avoid fried or greasy foods. “There’s no shortage of data or research to show the benefits of healthful eating,” he says.

— Beth W. Orenstein is a freelance writer living in Northampton, Pennsylvania.

1. Fuhr U, Boettcher MI, Kinzig-Schippers M, et al. Toxicokinetics of acrylamide in humans after ingestion of a defined dose in a test meal to improve risk assessment for acrylamide carcinogenicity. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2006;15(2):266–271.