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Acrylamide in Food: Toxicity & Safety

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

Acrylamides are a toxic substance that are believed to cause cancer, yet acrylamides are frequently found in food. In this lesson we will learn what acrylamides are and how they can be avoided.

Sources of Acrylamides

Processed meat, French fries, microwave popcorn, microwaves, cell phones, and the list just seems to go on and on. These are all things accused of causing cancer. After a while, we start to wonder what the point is, everything seems to cause cancer. Today we are going to look at one of these cancer-causing substances, acrylamide.

Acrylamide is found in foods such as French fries, chocolate chip cookies, and pretzels. An acrylamide is a compound with the chemical formula of C3H5NO. It is formed with an amino acid (asparagine) combined with a reducing sugar (fructose or glucose) in high heat (above 250 degrees Fahrenheit). In most instances asparagine and sugar can combine without problems, in fact, the reaction between asparagine and sugar creates many desired products such as caramel and roast meat. When this reaction is allowed to proceed further under high temperatures acrylamide can form.

Acrylamide structure

Since high temperatures are necessary for acrylamides to form they are particularly common in fried foods, which is why French fries are one of the most common sources of acrylamides. Meats don't often have acrylamides forming as they have little to no sugars to combine with the asparagine. Many baked goods (breads and cookies) have acrylamides forming because they have plenty of reducing sugars, and although we don't typically think of baked foods as being high in protein they do still have some proteins, therefore, asparagine is present as well.

Acrylamide Toxicity

Let's first go over how we know that acrylamides are toxic. Typically these studies are performed by feeding rats or other rodents large amounts of the substance in question. Scientists then compare the rate of cancer growth in rats that were fed the substance to rats that weren't fed the substance. For example, a rat may be fed 32 milligrams of acrylamide mixed with water. After 4 weeks of feeding the solution to the rats each day, the rat is dissected to determine how many tumors it has. Realize that 32 milligrams is a LOT, a typical human won't eat that much in their entire life, let alone every day. This is the easiest way to determine to what extent acrylamides may cause cancer. We also realize that rats are not humans, humans may react to something differently than a rat, but it is the best model we have been able to devise. In these studies, the rats fed acrylamides had a much higher rate of tumors than the rats with no acrylamides.

There have also been a few human studies. In these studies, scientists have subjects fill out a questionnaire once a year or so asking what kinds of foods they eat, how much, and how frequently. After 10 years they then compare the rates of cancer. These studies have been inconclusive as to whether or not there is an increased risk of cancer in those who consume more foods with acrylamides. The problem with these studies is that they are not controlled, the subjects are required to self-report what they have consumed. There are many other factors that play a role in the inconclusive nature of the human studies as our bodies are complicated. Despite the inconclusive nature of acrylamide toxicity, it is still suggested that we avoid acrylamides in order to stay as healthy as possible.

Acrylamide Safety

Most foods can be safely prepared with little to no acrylamides present. For foods that are unavoidable to prepare without the presence of acrylamides, there are certain steps that can be taken to limit the level. Since fried potato products are the most common to contain acrylamides, a lot of research has taken place to determine how to reduce the level of acrylamides.

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