Acrylamide: Snack Food Cancer Risk or Not?

Image for acrylamide article If warnings about fat, sodium, and empty calories did not stop you from eating your favorite fried and starchy snack foods, how about warnings about acrylamide? Acrylamide made headlines in 2002, when researchers first found high levels of acrylamide, a potentially cancer-causing agent, in a number of common foods. But, what is acrylamide? And should you avoid foods containing it?

A Natural By-product of Cooking Certain Foods

Acrylamide is an odorless, colorless chemical agent used to manufacture certain chemicals, plastics and dyes, which may have the potential for causing cancer in humans. A Swedish study was the first to report that frying or baking at high temperatures (greater than 250°F [121ºC]) for prolonged periods of time could create acrylamide in many types of food, particularly starchy foods, such as:
  • French fries
  • Potato chips
  • Crackers
  • Certain types of fried or baked bread
  • Some processed cereals
Researchers in Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States conducted food analyses and came up with similar findings to the Swedish study. According to a survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a large order of fast food French fries had at least 300 times more acrylamide than what the United States Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of water. The amount of acrylamide varied according to the type of food and, in some cases, the brand of a particular food. French fries had one of the highest amounts of acrylamide.

Dietary Acrylamide and Cancer

Scientists have concluded that acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory rats when ingested in large amounts. And large quantities of acrylamide have been found to cause nerve damage in humans. But so far, there is no evidence that the amounts of acrylamide in cooked foods can cause cancer or other harmful effects when ingested by people. According to the American Council on Science and Health, human cancer risk from dietary acrylamide cannot be adequately assessed when based exclusively on high-dose studies in laboratory animals. They believe that the acrylamide food studies probably caused unnecessary anxiety in consumers.

Study Finds Absence of Evidence

One study found no evidence that eating foods high in acrylamide increases the risk of cancer of the large bowel, bladder, and kidney. In the study, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden compared the diets of close to 1,000 cancer patients and more than 500 healthy adults over a 5-year period. The researchers found that people who ate the most acrylamide were at no greater risk of cancer than those who ate less. They also found that people who ate moderate to high levels of acrylamide had no higher risk of any of the types of cancer studied. The researchers note, however, that the relation of risk to acrylamide content in all foods could not be established. A similar study also failed to find any relationship between acrylamide intake and colon cancer in women. Also, a study looking at acrylamide and breast cancer in Swedish women did not find any association between the two.

But Is This Evidence of Absence?

Although research provides some evidence that there is no link between dietary intake of acrylamide and major types of cancer, more research is necessary. The United States Food and Drug Administration is now working to develop a better understanding of how acrylamide is chemically formed, how to measure its presence in food, and how it functions in the human body.

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