The first “health scare” of the year kicked off in January, as new publicity shed a light onto a potentially cancer causing substance called acrylamide. The panic inducing and media hyped compound was reportedly found in burnt toast, roast potatoes, crisps, biscuits and coffee. The wide coverage worried many consumers,
and angered just as many others – so, what actually is going on?

 

What is Acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a compound which forms when starches are cooked above 120 Degrees Centigrade, as a result of the reaction between reducing sugars and the asparagine amino acid. It’s a natural side effect of any starch cooking, so browning, crisping and the development of the distinctive cooked flavour indicates that this reaction (the Maillard Reaction) is occurring. Baking, frying and roasting of root vegetables, cereals and coffee beans all generate acrylamide, so it can be found in products like crisps, fries, crackers, crispbread, biscuits, roast potatoes, bread, and many other common foods. Levels increase the further a foodstuff is cooked, for example, whilst baked bread contains some acrylamide, toast will contain more.

It’s worth noting that despite acrylamide only having been detected in foods in 2002, it’s likely that since the invention of cooking we have been consuming some dietary acrylamide.

 

 

 

 

 

Does it Cause Cancer?

Acrylamide has been well documented as a cancer causing substance (carcinogen) in mice and rat studies, but the doses given to these lab animals are much higher than the dose you’d get through diet. A Cambridge statistician writing for the Mirror estimates that you’d need to consume 162 times as much acrylamide as the average to reach the dosage given to these animals.

What about Humans?

Currently acrylamide is classed by the World Health Organisation as a probable human carcinogen – as the research supporting human cancer causation is both weak and lacking. At the level of dietary consumption there is no strong or conclusive evidence that acrylamide is contributing in any meaningful way towards human cancer cases. Two meta analyses illustrating this lack of association between acrylamide and cancer can be found here and here.

Not to say acrylamide hasn’t ever caused us problems. As an industrial chemical, you may have seen the occasional story of leaks and accidental exposures. Several of these high dosage accidents have resulted in neurotoxic effects for those in close occupational proximity.

Should we worry about Acrylamide?

While the jury is still out on the definitive dangers of low level dietary acrylamide – current research points towards the effects being minimal. It’s likely to be more productive to concentrate on reducing exposure to what we know conclusively causes cancer – smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, overweight or obesity, processed meat and excessive UV exposure.

Eating a healthy balanced diet, being physically active, and maintaining a healthy weight may be “boring” messages, but they are factually sound actions we can all take to reduce our cancer risk. If you still need some reassurance, know that there are hundreds of “carcinogenic substances”, acrylamide being in the same category as red meat, glyphosate, shift work and … being a hairdresser. There are many carcinogenic trace elements surrounding us every day, to the point where we would literally have to eliminate practically everything to avoid them. The key is that the doses are so small they are unlikely to have any effect.

What steps have been taken by Industry?

The European Commission has announced plans to set regulatory maximum acrylamide limits for ready meals, on top of measures already taken to provide guideline or “indicative values”. Since acrylamide may exert its carcinogenic effects by damaging DNA, setting a “safe” level is difficult; as any amount of acrylamide will cause some damage. There is already a limit of 0.1 µg/L for acrylamide in the water supply, as polyacrylamide is used as a water purification agent.

Data also shows that industry has been steadily reducing the amount of acrylamide in their products since 2002, for example in crisps, as cooking methods become more efficient. Overall there’s been a 30% reduction in levels across all UK food products between 2007 and 2015.

What can I do to reduce acrylamide?

If you’re still worried about acrylamide at home then there are some small and simple actions you can take to reduce exposure. The Food Standards Agency recently launched its “Go for Gold” campaign – suggesting that on cooking foods like toast and roast potatoes you aim for a light gold colour instead of darker browns. Keeping your potatoes out of the fridge is also likely to help, as refrigerating spuds can increase levels of reducing sugars – a key component in acrylamide formation.

Limiting foods like crisps and biscuits is also likely to give you much greater health benefits than just acrylamide reduction – by reducing added sugars and saturated fats. Likewise, one of the compounds present in the carcinogenic cocktail present in tobacco smoke is, you guessed it, acrylamide. Smokers have 3-4 times as much acrylamide in their bloodstream as non-smokers, and their exposure levels can be over 50% greater. Quitting smoking means not just giving up acrylamide, but thousands of other cancer causing compounds as well. NHS help to quit smoking can be found here.

In Summary – the occasional piece of burnt toast won’t be causing cancer, and there’s no need to panic about acrylamide. The key to reducing your cancer risk is a balanced, varied and nutritious diet, and that includes enjoying toast and roast potatoes!

Charlie Rose Howard, Dietetic Student

Charlie is a BSc Nutrition and Dietetics student at King’s College London. She’s interested in all things public health, child health, and evidence based. Tweet her @charlieroseRD2B

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.