Acrylamide: What To Know When You Cook and Bake

It’s human nature to fear the unknown, so when people hear about something called acrylamide in food, it’s understandable why many of us would be concerned. That’s why a little context and science-based information could help alleviate some fears about a naturally occurring chemical in food that few people are familiar with (our research shows that three-quarters of moms haven’t even heard of it) or understand.

What is acrylamide, and why is it in some foods?

First, the basics. Acrylamide, whose presence in some foods was discovered in 2002, occurs naturally. It is not added to food, nor is it part of food packaging.

Acrylamide can be present or form in foods— such as potatoes, grain products, and coffee—that contain asparagine (an amino acid) and some sugars (like fructose). Other foods like meat, dairy and fish products also have been found to have very low or negligible levels of acrylamide.

The formation of acrylamide is possible when cooking these foods at high temperatures for extended periods, such as frying, roasting or baking. Boiling or steaming these foods, however, makes acrylamide formation less likely.

So it’s “natural.” But is it harmful?

Because acrylamide is produced naturally as part of the cooking process, it can occur in your home, at your favorite restaurant, or anywhere else fried, baked or roasted foods are found.

But you don’t need to run screaming from any of your favorite foods. Acrylamide exposure in foods, which occurs at very low levels, has not been associated with negative health effects in people. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend eliminating any one particular food to avoid or reduce dietary exposure.

If you’re tempted to think an “elimination diet” or “detox” is the answer, it could have the unintended consequence of impacting your overall diet and nutrient intake. The FDA advises that “consumers adopt a healthy eating plan, consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020), that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products; includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and limits saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium) and added sugars.”

Is it true that acrylamide can cause cancer?

According to the 2016 IFIC Foundation Food and Health Survey, 15 percent of American consumers think carcinogens in food is the most important food safety issue. Indeed, some studies have found that acrylamide, at high levels (much higher than is present in any food) and for prolonged periods of exposure, can cause cancer in animals.

Carcinogens are compounds with cancer-causing potential—the key word being “potential.” Whether something is carcinogenic depends on many different factors. According to the American Cancer Society, “Carcinogens do not cause cancer in every case, all the time. … Some may cause cancer only after prolonged, high levels of exposure. And for any particular person, the risk of developing cancer depends on many factors, including how they are exposed to a carcinogen, the length and intensity of the exposure, and the person's genetic makeup.”

While further research on the cancer-causing potential of acrylamide exposure in food is still ongoing, a 2014 systematic review of the available evidence concluded:

“A majority of the studies reported no statistically significant association between dietary acrylamide intake and various cancers, and few studies reported increased risk for renal, endometrial, and ovarian cancers; however, the exposure assessment has been inadequate leading to potential misclassification or underestimation of exposure. Future studies with improved dietary acrylamide exposure assessment are encouraged.” 

OK, but what if I still want to take action?

Food producers, health authorities, and researchers have made tremendous efforts and developed industry guidance over the past 15 years to reduce acrylamide levels in packaged and prepared foods.

But if you still want to try to reduce the formation of acrylamide in your home-cooked foods, Dr. Julie M. Jones, Endowed Chair in Science at St. Catherine University and expert in nutrition and food science, has a few tips:

  • Remember the “Golden” Rule:  Avoid cooking your foods until they are dark brown.
  • Skins Are In  Potatoes that have their skins on when they are cooked in the microwave or boiled tend to have lower levels of acrylamide.
  • The Heat Is On:  Heat your foods at the proper temperature and don't overcook them.  However, make sure you to cook to a safe internal temperature so that your food is safe to eat.

Check out FDA’s “Acrylamide:  Diet, Food Storage, and Prep” for additional tips to reduce acrylamide in your diet and food preparation.

So, bottom-line it for me …

With industry practices in place that continue to effectively reduce acrylamide far below levels that could adversely impact human health, and with leading health authorities providing insights on consumer dietary patterns, dietary acrylamide is not a major public health threat.

It’s most important to focus on your overall diet and nutrient intake, not individual foods or food components. While additional research is being done on acrylamide in foods and the potential health effects, health professionals and government officials agree that what is most important is that we all adhere to the current 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by following a “healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.”