What is acrylamide and is it a cancer risk?

The FSA has recently linked acrylamide, found in burnt toast and roast potatoes, to cancer. We look at the latest advice from official health organisations.

What is acrylamide and is it a cancer risk?

What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a natural chemical that is formed when starchy foods such as bread and potatoes are cooked for long periods at a high temperature. When these foods are cooked (fried, baked, roasted, toasted or grilled) to above 120°C (250°F), they naturally form acrylamide. Acrylamide is produced as part of the cooking process and improves the texture and taste of foods. Although it is a naturally occurring chemical that has always been present in food, there have been recent concerns that increased exposure can cause adverse effects to health.  

Should we be worried about acrylamide in food?

Scientific studies on rats and mice show acrylamide to be a carcinogen (a substance with the potential to cause cancer) because of the way it interferes with the DNA of cells, although there is currently no conclusive evidence to suggest the same carcinogenic effect in humans. The Food Standards Agency are campaigning for greater awareness of the ways to lower levels of exposure to acrylamide in home cooking, and for the food industry to change their processing methods to do the same. Read more about the FSA's stance on acrylamide and the European Food Safety Authority's risk assessment of acrylamide.

The link between human consumption of acrylamide and developing cancer is much less clear. Cancer Research UK has said that human studies looking at acrylamide are inconclusive. However, the charity does support the general advice to lower the amount of fried foods in diet (such as chips and crisps) in favour of eating a healthy, balanced diet. Read more about Cancer Research UK's stance on acrylamide.

The NHS advice states that it's possible that prolonged exposure through eating acrylamide-rich food for many years is a potential risk factor, and points out that The World Health Organisation describes acrylamide as 'probably carcinogenic to humans'. But it also cautions that the risk of developing cancer through acrylamide is currently unknown, especially when compared to other lifestyle factors such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and being overweight, which have much clearer links. Read more about the NHS's stance on acrylamide.

So although there is no conclusive evidence that acrylamide is carcinogenic in humans, it is sensible to be aware of levels, limit where possible, and ensure other dietary and lifestyle guidelines are followed to remain healthy.

Which foods contain acrylamide?

Carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, roasted coffee beans, cooked potato products such as chips, crisps and roasted potatoes and some cereal and wheat products have the highest content of acrylamide. Processed foods such as biscuits and crackers also contain some. Boiling, steaming or microwaving are better cooking methods than grilling, roasting, toasting, frying or baking.

The Food Standards Agency are currently recommending the following steps to lower exposure:

  • Be aware – don’t overcook starchy foods
  • Consider duration and temperature of cooking
  • ‘Go for Gold’ – lightly toast or  until the food is yellow rather than burn or cook to high temperatures for long periods of time
  • Vary the diet to include a range of alternative starchy carbohydrate foods such as rice and pasta and a wide range of fruit and vegetables
  • Read cooking instructions carefully and follow cooking times accordingly
  • Avoid storing raw potatoes in the fridge. Refrigeration increases the level of free sugars in the potato and this in turns increases the amount of the precursor to acrylamide. Instead store them in the dark and if they are in the fridge, take them out and let them come to room temperature before cooking.

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This article was published on 30 January 2017.

Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) registered with the UKVRN.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

 

Comments, questions and tips

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BarbD
12th Feb, 2017
There has been such concern over acrylamide, yet people consume gallons of drinks that contain aspartame - a known carcinogen. How is that still allowed to be used?
Peter James Thomas
3rd Feb, 2017
Nice to see a balanced account after all the ill-informed scaremongering over recent weeks. For a further review of the science, you can take at: https://peterjamesthomas.com/2017/02/01/toast/ This draws on work by Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter. Peter
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