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Understanding Acrylamide —Should We Be Concerned?

Updated on February 24, 2017
RJ Schwartz profile image

Scientific study unlocks the secrets of the universe, however it's being used to today influence public opinion, sometimes incorrectly.

Acrylamide is a colorless, odorless, crystalline compound, (chemical makeup C3H5NO), which is soluble in water, alcohol, ethanol, chloroform, and acetone. Most acrylamides are used to make polyacrylamides, which are primarily used as water-soluble thickeners in various commercial industries including textile fiber manufacturing, ore processing, soap and cosmetics, soil stabilizers, grouting materials in masonary, and for sewage treatment. Workers in these industries may be exposed to acrylamides through inhalation, absorption through the skin, or absorption through mucous membranes. Tobacco smoke, both primary and second-hand, is the major source of exposure to acrylamides by human beings. (1) Acrylamides can also be found in drinking water however they are quickly broken down by bacteria and rendered harmless. The discovery of acrylamide in some cooked starchy foods in 2002 prompted concerns about the carcinogenicity of those foods and opened the door to additional research on the topic. As of 2017 it is still not clear whether acrylamide consumption affects people's risk of developing cancer and it’s been a highly debated topic over the last decade.

Foods and Cooking Temperatures

Acrylamide was first discovered in foods in April 2002 by a team of researchers led by Ms. Eden Tareke, while working with the Swedish National Food Administration at Stockholm University. (2) While doing research using a new analytical procedure, Ms. Tareke found the chemical present in potato chips, french fries, and breads that had been heated higher than 248°F. She concluded that the production of acrylamide in the heating process was shown to be temperature-dependent. Foods that were not heated to the temperature threshold did not have the acrylamides, nor were foods that were boiled, even though they surpassed the threshold. Also during the study, Acrylamide levels appeared to rise as the different foods were heated for longer periods of time. It is now generally agreed that acrylamide is formed by the Maillard reaction from the condensation of the amino acid asparagine with reducing sugars such as fructose or glucose upon heating at temperatures above 120°C. (3)

Cancer and Regulatory Agencies

Despite the incomplete data, many people are under the belief that acrylamides cause cancer, simply based on the fact that acrylamides cause cancer in laboratory rats when given high doses. These laboratory doses were extremely high as compared to normal human consumption – 600x higher. Currently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates acrylamide in drinking water. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulate the amount of residual acrylamide in a variety of materials that come in contact with food, but there are currently no guidelines governing the presence of acrylamide in food itself.

Foods With High Acrylamide

Food products that are known to have high acrylamide levels when cooked are potato chips, baked or fried potatoes, baked or fried sweet potatoes, some breads, cookies, crackers, and toasted nuts. Also prune juice, coffee, dried pears, some cereals, such as bran or corn flakes, peanut butter, canned black olives, and cocoa. The USDA reports that nearly 40% of the calories consumed daily by the average person contain acrylamides. The amount of acrylamide varies across different foods and even across different manufacturer brands of the same foods. Acrylamide is present mostly in plant-based foods; fried potato products and breakfast cereals are the most significant sources of dietary acrylamide in the U.S. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that U.S. adults average 0.4 micrograms of dietary acrylamide intake per kilogram of body weight each day. For an adult weighing 150 pounds, this amount translates into approximately 27 micrograms of dietary acrylamide per day.

Foods With High Acrylamides

Summary

Although laboratory studies suggest that acrylamide is a potential carcinogen, the need for additional epidemiological cohort studies to determine what the effects of dietary acrylamide intake on human cancer risk could actually be. It is also important to do further research on how acrylamide is formed during the cooking process and whether acrylamide is naturally present in other foods other than those already tested. (4) Consumers are already being influenced by many outside sources, including the State of California which has already listed acrylamide on the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity (such as birth defects and other reproductive harm).(5)

Citations

(1) Toxicological Profile for Acrylamide - December 2012 CAS#: 79-06-1

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences

1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-57

Atlanta, GA 30329-4027

Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)

Email: Contact CDC-INFO


(2) Tareke, E., P. Rydberg, P. Karlsson, S. Eriksson, and M. Törnqvist. 2002.

Analysis of acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in heated foodstuffs. J Agric Food Chem. 50:4998–5006.


(3) Human exposure and internal dose assessments of acrylamide in food

E. Dybing a, P.B. Farmer b, M. Andersen c, T.R. Fennell d, S.P.D. Lalljie e, D.J.G. Mu¨ ller f, S. Olin g, B.J. Petersen h, J. Schlatter i, G. Scholz j, J.A. Scimeca k, N. Slimani l, M. To¨rnqvist m, S. Tuijtelaars n,*, P. Verger o

a Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Division of Environmental Medicine, P.O. Box 4404, Nydalen, NO-0403 Oslo, Norway

b University of Leicester, Biocentre, University Road, LE1 7RH Leicester, UK

c CIIT Centers for Health Research, Six Davis Drive, P.O. Box 12137, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-2137, USA

d RTI International, 3040 Cornwallis Road, P.O. Box 12194, Research Triangle Park, US-27709-2194 Raleigh, NC, USA

e Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre, Unilever, Colworth House, Sharnbrook, Bedford MK44 1LQ, UK

f Procter & Gamble Service GmbH, Sulzbacher Strasse 40, DE-65824 Schwalbach Am Taunus, Germany

g International Life Sciences Institute, Risk Science Institute, One Thomas Circle, Ninth Floor, Washington, DC 20005-5802, USA

h Food and Chemicals Practice Exponent, Inc., 1730 Rhode Island Avenue, Suite 1100, US-20036 Washington, DC, USA

i Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, Food Toxicology Section, Stauffacherstrasse 101, CH-8004 Zu¨ rich, Switzerland

j Nestle´ Research Center Lausanne, Nestec Ltd., P.O. Box 44, Vers-Chez-les-Blanc, 1000 Lausanne 26, Switzerland

k Cargill, 15407 McGinty Road, West, MS #56, US-55391 Wayzata, MN, USA

l International Agency for Research on Cancer, Nutrition and Hormones Group, Cours Albert Thomas, 150, FR-69008 Lyon, France

m University of Stockholm, Department of Environmental Chemistry, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

n ILSI Europe, 83, Av. E. Mounier, Box 6, B-1200 Brussels, Belgium

o Institut National Agronomique de Paris Grignon, Unite´ Me´ tarisk, 16, rue Claude Bernard, FR-75231 Paris Cedex 05, France

Received 2 September 2004; accepted 9 November 2004


(4) National Cancer Institute

Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk

Reviewed: July 29, 2008


(5) OEHHA

http://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/general-info/acrylamide

Comments

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  • RJ Schwartz profile image
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    Ralph Schwartz 6 months ago from Idaho Falls, Idaho

    You are too kind - thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  • Luke Holm profile image

    Luke Holm 6 months ago

    Ah, I see. Well, thanks for the information! I'd never heard about this before you wrote about it. Good find and nice journalism.

  • RJ Schwartz profile image
    Author

    Ralph Schwartz 6 months ago from Idaho Falls, Idaho

    Water borne bacteria break the acrylamide down, most likely not in our stomachs.

  • Luke Holm profile image

    Luke Holm 6 months ago

    Thanks for the read, Ralph. It was a very informative (and well-researched) hub. I'm curious how much of an impact it has on a human being's health if they are consciously eating an alkalyne diet, rather than one so acidic as described by the previously aforementioned foods producing/containing acrylamides. Also, if acrylamides dissolve in water, rendering them harmless, then how come they don't dissolve in stomach acid and result in much the same effect? In any case, thanks for the information. Keep up the good work :)

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 6 months ago from Norfolk, England

    To be honest, I've never heard of Acrylamide before, so this has been useful to read!