Acrylamide: A Natural Process in Cooking

In today’s culinary world, cooking has been transformed into a respected art form.  But you may have heard recent concerns about acrylamide that can form during cooking.   Whether at home, in restaurants, or in production facilities – a natural process occurs and compounds like acrylamide can be formed.

What is acrylamide and how is it formed?
Acrylamide occurs naturally when sugars and amino acids in carbohydrate-rich foods react during the cooking process that uses high temperatures. The compound can be found in a number of foods—including potato chips and fries, breads, cereals, and coffee—and is formed when foods are toasted, fried, baked or otherwise cooked at high temperatures.  The darker the color of the fried (e.g., French fries) or baked food (e.g., toast), the more acrylamide is present.

Acrylamide is not added to food, but it has been a natural component in the human food supply for millions of years. Since a group of Swedish researchers first discovered its presence in foods in 2002, the compound has attracted attention from scientists and global health and regulatory bodies, as well as growing interest from the media, health and nutrition professionals and consumers.  However, most experts agree that the extremely low levels of acrylamide found in food are unlikely to cause adverse effects and should not be a cause for concern.

Earlier this year, the Joint World Health Organization / Food and Agricultural Organization Expert Committee on Food Contaminants (JEFCA) met to evaluate current research regarding dietary acrylamide and any potential risks for consumers. This summary report, essential for global health and regulatory bodies, concludes that current epidemiological studies do not provide any evidence that dietary exposure to acrylamide resulted in an increased incidence of cancer. The report goes on to say more research is needed to better assess actual incidences of cancer associated with a number of possible carcinogens – not just acrylamide.

In a recommendation that has been echoed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Julie Jones (professor, College of St. Catherine, University of Minnesota) says, “Consumers should focus on eating a healthful, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead of worrying about avoiding foods that are high in acrylamide.”

The Art of Cooking Today
According to Dr. Jones, “When it comes to cooking foods, it is important to understand there are healthful benefits to heating foods, such as better nutrient availability in some cases, fewer microorganisms and a reduced risk of foodborne illness. These benefits outweigh any potential risk of a heat-formed compound such as acrylamide.” Dr. Jones also notes that some people enjoy food only when it is prepared a certain way. For example, if roasted vegetables are the only way you or a loved one will eat vegetables, the benefits of eating them will outweigh any potential risk from the roasting process—just avoid over-browning them.

During a recent IFIC Foundation Webinar on acrylamide the following experts shared their viewpoints on acrylamide:

  • Dr. Carl Winter, Extension Toxicologist at the University of California at Davis, shared expert advice on “Evaluating the Science of Acrylamide.”  In summarizing his presentation Dr. Winter said, “The science around acrylamide does not suggest that consumers should make changes to their eating or food preparation habits due to acrylamide. It is present in numerous food and beverage products, so cutting one food product out of the diet on account of acrylamide content will not rid the diet of acrylamide. It is more important to focus on eating a balanced and varied diet.”
  • Dr. David Lineback, Past Chair, Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, University of Maryland, shared his thoughts on “Mitigation of Acrylamide Content in Foods.”  Dr. Lineback pointed out that “While progress is being made in the reduction of acrylamide, the commercial success has yielded only a limited number of food products with reduced acrylamide content. Reduction must be addressed on a case-by-case basis, as no single method works universally. It is also very important to consider that it is unlikely to reduce acrylamide in a lot of foods without changing the color, flavor or texture of the food which may impact consumer acceptability.  Food safety must also be considered when addressing acrylamide reduction, especially when cooking temperatures and times are being explored.”

A recording of the Web cast, as well as one–page summaries and links to other materials on acrylamide, are available via the Food Insight Web site at the Acrylamide Resources page.

In summary, when it comes to the naturally-occurring compound, acrylamide, the science suggests there is no reason to eliminate certain foods from our diet or to make wholesale changes in our consumption or preparation techniques.

“Eating may be dangerous, but not eating has proven to be fatal,” Dr. Winter says.