Acrylamide is a chemical that forms when sugars, like glucose and fructose, react with the amino acid asparagine at high temperatures (above 120°C or 248°F). It usually occurs via the Maillard reaction and is responsible for giving browned foods their distinctive flavor. Because these sugars and amino acids are naturally present in certain foods, acrylamide forms automatically when you do roasting, baking, and frying. It does not form when boiling or steaming foods.
In 2002, Swedish researchers found acrylamide in various food items, like French fries and potato chips. And while it’s mostly found in potato and grain products, and coffee, the amount is negligible in dairy, meat, or fish. Recently, a lot of studies have been focusing on the potential link between acrylamide consumption and the risk of cancer. Animal studies show that at high doses, acrylamide has the ability to cause cancer.
It’s important to note that most of these studies have been conducted on animals, and not on humans, so while health organizations do caution against high acrylamide intake, they also acknowledge the fact that the results are somewhat limited. In 2010, health authorities concluded that acrylamide in foods is a potential concern for human health, but as of yet, it’s still not officially classed as a human carcinogen (i.e. cancer-causing agent).
Instead of avoiding potential sources of acrylamide altogether, the FDA advises that we rather adopt a healthy lifestyle as a whole. In other words, stick to a diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, whole grains, and legumes.
If the idea of consuming acrylamide is still unsettling to you, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your exposure:
- Boil or steam foods instead of frying and roasting, as the former processes do not produce acrylamide.
- When frying potatoes or toasting bread, stop when you observe a light brown (as opposed to dark brown) color, since this would indicate that less acrylamide has formed.
- When making French fries, soak your potatoes in water for about half an hour before frying.