Acrylamide: Hype or Poison

Fried carbohydrates may be carcinogenic, studies show

When do potatoes and grains become hazardous to your health?  When they are cooked, hints highly publicized studies that created a stir in the nutrition community and a special session by experts with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Acrylamide is a toxic and cancer-causing chemical, according to a WHO/FAO published report.  It has been shown to cause cancer in rats; however, its true effect on humans is not completely known.

The big commotion began in April of 2002, when researchers from the Swedish National Food Administration (NFA) and Stockholm University published results indicating that acrylamide is formed in many types of prepared foods cooked at high temperatures.  Because the chemical was already known to be carcinogenic in animals, it created immense concern from food scientists all over the world who were not previously aware that cooking foods formed acrylamide as a byproduct.

Scientists have long understood the Maillard reaction - the browning of sugar-containing foods as a result from high-temperature cooking.  The reaction, which transforms proteins in the presence of sugar and heat, is responsible for the brown color on the surface of breads, potato chips and pastries.  What scientists did not previously know is that this same reaction may be responsible for the formation of acrylamide, a byproduct that is not found in uncooked foods. 

"Acrylamide has been found in certain foods that have been cooked and processed at high temperatures, and the levels of acrylamide increase with the time of heating." - WHO/FAO

Following the original studies, the WHO and FAO called for a global test on acrylamide levels in foods.  Food agencies from Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada and the United States all found that the chemical was present in carbohydrate-containing foods that were cooked or fried at temperatures exceeding 248°F or 120°C.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken no official position on acrylamide.  However, the agency launched a late investigation into the matter and has called for further research, supporting the WHO recommendations to determine if the levels of acrylamide found in food are detrimental to human health.

In December of 2002, the FDA published preliminary findings of acrylamide values found in common foods.  Categories of food products ranged from common baby foods to fast-food french fries.

No one really knows if the acrylamide levels found in the food supply are a cause of cancer in humans. Only time and further research can determine the long-term ramifications of eating high amounts of cooked carbohydrate-rich foods. The FDA plans to hold more meetings regarding acrylamide this year while supporting efforts for more research.

The WHO/FAO has advised that food should not be cooked for too long or at too high a temperature to avoid increases in the formation of acrylamide. Meat products, however, should continue to be cooked thouroughly to destroy foodborne pathogens. The WHO, FAO and FDA all agree that promoting a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables is important to prevent chronic diet-related disease.