For over 15 years scientists have wondered whether acrylamide, a chemical found in any burned, charred, and toasted food, is harmful to human health.
Scientific studies on rodents show acrylamide to be a carcinogen because of the way it interferes with DNA, although there is currently no conclusive evidence to suggest the same carcinogenic effect in humans. Still, scientists believe it make sense to be cautious and urge more awareness of the issue.
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.”
So what is acrylamide?
Any food that is fried, baked, or roasted at high temperatures undergoes a process called a Maillard reaction that causes it to brown. This “browning” reaction can form acrylamide in small doses.
Acrylamide can also 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.
How dangerous is it?
One of the general principles of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. You can get sick when exposed to chemicals in extremely high amounts, but one fried meal or a cup of coffee won’t kill you or cause any discernible harm.
“Adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide could consume 160 times as much and still only be at a level that toxicologists think unlikely to cause increased tumors in mice,” says David Spiegelhalter, a University of Cambridge professor.
Here are some general recommendations on how to avoid too much acrylamide:
- Avoid cooking your foods until they are dark brown.
- Potatoes that have their skins on during cooking have lower levels of acrylamide.
- Heat your foods at the proper temperature and don’t overcook them.
- It’s most important to focus on your overall diet and nutrient intake, not individual foods or food components.