Acrylamide: A potential danger in your favourite snack

By Stellar Frisby on 05 April 2022

When you're enjoying a packet of potato crisps, chips with a meal, or a toasted sandwich and a cup of coffee and someone asks you whether you've heard of the dangers of acrylamide - how would you respond?

Although well known in various industries where its effects on people are known, such as the tobacco industry, the presence of acrylamide in food was only discovered in 2002 when a group of Swedish researchers working on acrylamide exposure in working environments concluded that cooked food was a source of acrylamide exposure. This was a shock to the food industry and to consumers who had been ingesting this substance, apparently without harm, since mankind started baking, roasting, and frying food.

Acrylamide is formed during the process of cooking carbohydrate-rich foods at temperatures that exceed 120 degrees Celsius. When sugars such as glucose and amino acids such as asparagine react, acrylamide is formed. This reaction is known as the Maillard reaction or the “browning reaction” and thus, as a rule of thumb, the darker the food, the more acrylamide has been formed. Due to the fact that no acrylamide is present naturally in carbohydrate-rich ingredients, it is regarded as a processing contaminant that is formed during processes such as frying, toasting, roasting, and baking.

Once acrylamide is absorbed into the body it is metabolised and forms glycidamide, which is considered to be carcinogenic and genotoxic. Simply put, this means that any level of exposure may potentially damage a person’s DNA and may increase the risk of cancer. In 1994, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified acrylamide as a substance probably carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.

Data collected in Europe since 2003 shows that the foodstuffs with the highest acrylamide levels are vegetable crisps, chicory-based coffee substitutes, coffee, and potato chips respectively. Other acrylamide-producing products include French fries, biscuits, and breakfast cereals. It is important to remember that although some products contain more acrylamide than others, it is the amount of any particular food consumed that determines the exposure. 

What has the food industry done to reduce the levels of acrylamide in food products?

Once acrylamide has been formed during cooking, it cannot be reversed.  For this reason, FoodDrinkEurope (a European food industry confederation) working with ESFA, developed an “Acrylamide Toolbox” for manufacturers with the aim of suggesting methods of reducing acrylamide production to levels that are “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” without affecting the acceptability and safety of food products. Such methods include ingredient selection and storage, recipe design and process design for a range of items such as French fries, potato crisps, breakfast cereals, bread, biscuits, crackers and crispbread, as well as foods for infants and young children.

In 2018, the Commission Regulation (EU) 2017/2158 (regarding acrylamide risk management) came into force in the European Union and in the same year, the European Snacks Association (ESA) reported a 54% reduction in acrylamide levels compared to 2002.

With modern problems come modern solutions and currently, research and development in the field of genetics and agriculture are leading the way in the reduction of the precursors of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich agricultural products such as potatoes and wheat.

What can consumers do to reduce acrylamide formation in their preparation of food at home?

  • Lightly brown food, do not burn it! - “GO FOR GOLD” (a good example is toast)

  • Use a variety of cooking methods that do not produce acrylamide, such as boiling and steaming and sautéing

  • Keep the quantity of ‘adult’ snacks young children eat to a minimum – especially potato-based products – low acrylamide alternatives are available for children

  • Chicory coffee blends are generally expected to contain more acrylamide than pure coffee

  • A balanced diet generally reduces the risk of exposure

 With specific regard to potatoes:

  • Store potatoes above 8°C (to reduce sugar levels)

  • Reduce the surface area of potatoes intended to be baked/roasted/fried by cutting them into larger pieces

  • Wash potatoes in water to remove excess starch and sugars before frying, roasting or air-frying

  • An EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) report suggests hot-air fryers generally produce 30-40% more acrylamide compared to conventional deep-fat fryers.

Despite what has been mentioned, it is not necessary to avoid eating your favourite foods and snacks.  Rather, be mindful of what you are eating, how much you are eating, and how it has been prepared – as Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, reminds us - the dose makes the poison. 

For more information and a list of references, please contact the writer at Hahn & Hahn at