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Questions and Answers About Acrylamide

February 10, 2011

Recent international and domestic reports and research regarding dietary acrylamide continue to provide regulators and health agencies across the globe with current information about exposure and any possible adverse health effects.  From the numerous recent research initiatives by the Joint FAO / WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JEFCA) as well as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) indicate that while more research is needed, it is clear that the current levels of acrylamide in many foods is lower than in years past.  This is due to a number of industry and processing initiatives as well as consumer recommendations.  The 2011 National Toxicology Program (NTP) soon to be published research will provide additional insights into acrylamide exposure and any potential impact on human health.  The NTP is a major research contributor to the part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Acrylamide Action Plan for Acrylamide in Food.

Background
In April 2002, researchers at the Swedish National Food Administration and Stockholm University reported research that detected trace levels of the chemical acrylamide in some baked and fried foods.  These findings raised concerns due to the known toxicity of acrylamide at much higher doses than seen in foods. The research, currently under review by several world health organizations and scientists, has focused the attention of the food industry on a global scale since then.  Food agencies from several countries including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have initiated several long-term studies regarding acrylamide in food.

What is acrylamide and how is it used?
Acrylamide is an industrial compound used in the production of many different products, mainly plastics.  It is not added to food. 

Can acrylamide be found in food?
Yes.  Numerous studies indicate that acrylamide can be found in some baked and fried foods. It forms from sugars and an amino acid that are naturally present in food. It does not come from packaging or the environment. While we have been enjoying baked and fried foods for generations, acrylamide was not previously identified nor considered a human health risk in food.

Which foods have acrylamide?
Research now indicates that acrylamide occurs in certain foods when they are prepared using traditional cooking methods like frying, roasting, baking, and toasting, whether in a food production plant, in a restaurant, or at home. Acrylamide is found mainly in foods made from plants, such as potato products, grain products, or coffee. Acrylamide does not form, or forms at lower levels, in dairy, meat, and fish products. The U.S. FDA provides information regarding acrylamide content in individual food products. See: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/acrydata.html#u1004.

Is this something new in food?
No.  Acrylamide probably has been present at some level in foods ever since we began cooking food.  However, prior to the Swedish study, food was not analyzed for acrylamide since it was not used as an ingredient in foods, nor was it known to be a component of food.  Recent advances in detection techniques and methods now allow scientists to detect the very low levels of acrylamide found in food.

In the United States, the FDA has developed its own test methodology to measure levels of acrylamide in foods and recently made this methodology available on its website at:  http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/acrylami.html so that other researchers can review and use it. The Agency is currently analyzing a broad range of foods. The FDA and the scientific community will continue to evaluate the accumulated data and testing protocols, and will determine appropriate recommendations as necessary.

Are there human health risks from acrylamide exposure from food?
From the robust body of research conducted over the past several years, there is currently not sufficient information to draw firm conclusions about health risks to humans. Acrylamide caused cancer in animals in studies where they were exposed to acrylamide at very high doses. On the basis of previous animal studies, acrylamide is listed as a probable human carcinogen. FDA has not yet determined the exact public health impact, if any, of acrylamide from the much lower levels found in foods. FDA is conducing research to determine whether acrylamide in food is a potential risk to human health.

Epidemiological studies regarding acrylamide (environmental and dietary exposure) and a link to certain cancers continue to be explored.  Epidemiological studies have not shown an increased risk for most cancers.  For example, breast and colorectal cancer have not been linked to acrylamide intake.  A recent epidemiological study indicates a potential association between endometrial and ovarian cancer in postmenopausal women.  The study, “A Prospective Study of Dietary Acrylamide Intake and the Risk of Endometrial, Ovarian and Breast Cancer” was published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention in 2007.  Scientists agree more research should be conducted to confirm such findings before acting on these conclusions.

What’s being done to ensure the safety of the food supply with regard to acrylamide?
Government agencies from around the globe have been studying acrylamide for several years.  For instance, FDA has developed an action plan for evaluating the safety of acrylamide in food. The action plan outlines FDA's goals and current activity on the issue of acrylamide in food and includes a timeline of planned events. FDA is working with other federal agencies and participates in international research efforts. The action plan is available on the FDA website at: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/acryplan.html.  FDA will revise the plan, as needed, based on public comment and on knowledge gained from ongoing research developments.

In early 2005, the 64th Joint FAO / WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) met to evaluate the potential health risks of several contaminants in food, including acrylamide.  The report evaluated all available data on acrylamide, and an INFOSAN information note released jointly by WHO and FAO concluded the following:

Consumers are encouraged to eat a balanced and varied diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables and moderate in fried and fatty foods.
Governments, industry and scientific communities should continue to develop processing and cooking techniques that lower acrylamide content in food.
Industry should ensure that any reduction techniques do not increase other microbiological or chemical hazards.
Authorities should provide guidance on reducing acrylamide content in home-cooked foods as part of an overall healthful dietary education program.
The full report is available through the WHO Web site at: www.who.int/en/.

 

As a consumer, should I change my diet to reduce or eliminate exposure to acrylamide?
No.  There is no indication at this time that consumers need to change their eating habits in response to these preliminary studies.  The WHO, the FDA, several government organizations, and other respected food safety experts continue to advise consumers to follow established dietary guidelines such as the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and eat a healthful, balanced diet consisting of a wide variety of foods.

Putting Risk in Perspective:  Here’s What You Need to Know . . .
The beauty of a balanced and diverse diet rich in fruits, vegetables, meats and whole grains and low in fat, is that it promotes good health. There is no reason at this time to recommend dietary changes based on current findings, as there is little evidence indicating dietary acrylamide as an actual health risk for consumers.  Choose a diet rich in variety, while exercising moderate consumption.

Related Information:

  • FDA Acrylamide Questions and Answers
  • WHO Frequently asked questions - acrylamide in food
  • 2010 Joint Expert Consultation on Food Additives and Contaminants summary report
  • JIFSAN Acrylamide Infonet
  • 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
  • HEATOX Project (European Union Commission)
  • CIAA Toolbox for Industry (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union)
  • European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
  • Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (Germany)
  • Health Canada
  • FDA Action Plan for Acrylamide
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