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Acrylamide in Food: Should We Worry?
Recent news has brought questions about the dangers of acrylamide out of the laboratory and onto our dinner plates. Acrylamide, an industrial chemical known to be toxic for humans, has been found in high levels in some common foods, especially french fries and potato chips. What do we need to know for our children's safety?

What is acrylamide and how does it get into our food?

Acrylamide is a chemical used in treating wastewater and making glues, paper and cosmetics. It has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and harm the human nervous system and genetic material.

In 2002, the Swedish National Food Authority reported finding high levels of acrylamide in many common foods, including french fries and potato chips. Since then, high levels have also been found in foods in other countries including Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The acrylamide was found to be produced as a natural result of cooking the foods at high temperatures during frying, baking and roasting. It was not added to the food during processing. The levels of acrylamide were highest for starchy foods cooked at the highest temperatures for the longest times.

What foods have the highest levels of acrylamide?

Acrylamide has been found in many different foods including bread, cookies, pastries, breakfast cereals and coffee. The amount of acrylamide in foods varies from brand to brand, and in the type of cooking. However, the highest levels were found in french fries and potato chips. For example, the amount of acrylamide in a large order of fries was 300 to 600 times the amount the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of water. Elevated levels of acrylamide have been found in both precooked packaged foods and home-cooked foods prepared at high temperatures. Acrylamide was not found in raw foods or foods cooked at lower temperatures, including boiled potatoes. The Center for Science in the Public Interest published the results of testing of some U.S. foods and brands (see www.cspinet.org/new/200206251.html).

What are the dangers for children?

In 2002, the World Health Organization sponsored an expert panel to review studies on the dangers of acrylamide. It concluded that the findings of elevated acrylamide levels in foods were accurate. Because high acrylamide levels caused cancer in animals, there is a major concern that they could cause cancer in humans.

In 2005, a well-respected long-term study (the Nurses' Health Study) found that women who had eaten more servings of french fries during their preschool years were more likely to develop breast cancer as adults. The study looked for an association between 30 different foods and cancer, but french fries were the only food linked to higher breast cancer rates. Other high-fat foods including milk, cheese, butter, eggs and ground beef did not increase the risk of breast cancer. Although this study does not prove that french fries cause cancer, it confirms the concern that acrylamide in fries may.

What do health experts recommend?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working with other public health agencies and the food-processing industries to investigate why acrylamide forms in food, assess the health risks and determine how to reduce them. Although we don't yet have all the answers, health experts advise caution and suggest the following:
  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of high-fiber grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat fewer fatty and fried foods such as french fries and potato chips.
  • Do not cook food excessively at high temperatures. For example, when frying, roasting or toasting, cook food to a light golden color rather than making it dark and crispy. (Be sure to cook meat until the juices run clear to prevent bacterial food poisoning.)
  • Advocate for the labeling of foods with acrylamide, so you can make an informed choice about what food you serve yourself and your children.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician