Acrylamide- the what, the where, and the why do we care?

Kim McCorquodale RD, CSO

What is it? Acrylamide is a naturally occurring chemical compound formed when certain foods are cooked at high temperatures, such as during frying, roasting, and baking. It is formed from sugars (such as glucose and fructose) and the amino acid asparagine, both found naturally in many high-carbohydrate, plant-based foods. Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke and is produced industrially during the making of different products and in the treatment of drinking water. It has always been in some types of cooked foods, but was first detected in 2002.

Where is it? Acrylamide is found mostly in plant foods, such as potato and grain products, and coffee.  Levels increase when foods are cooked at high temperatures and/or for long periods of time. Fast-food French fries, potato chips, snack chips, and breakfast cereals contain some of the highest amounts.

Why do we care? In high doses acrylamide has been found to cause cancer in animals and be toxic to the nervous system of both animals and humans. Keep in mind that the doses given to animals during research were 1,000-10,000 times higher than usual dietary levels for humans. As is usual with these types of discoveries, lots of research is being done but definitive answers are slow in coming.

What can you do in the meantime? Specific suggestions include:

  • Cook foods at lower temperatures (around 300 ° F)
  • Cook potatoes, such as French fries, to a golden yellow rather than brown color
  • Toast bread lightly
  • Soak raw potato slices for 15-30 minutes, drain & blot dry, then fry or roast
  • Don’t store potatoes in the refrigerator (will increase sugar content)

In general, avoid overcooking foods and follow advice for healthy eating by decreasing your intake of fried, fatty, and processed foods. It all comes back to what your Mom always said- “Eat your fruits and veggies and stay away from junk food.”