When you eat potato chips, French fries, and similar snacks, do you notice that they have a fairly dry and brown/yellow surface? Chances are they contain acrylamide, a neurotoxic, cancer-causing chemical.
This substance is often produced when carbohydrate-rich foods are cooked, baked, fried, roasted, grilled, or toasted at high temperatures – specifically at 250 degrees Fahrenheit or 120 degrees Celsius. Acrylamide can also be found in foods such as sweet potatoes, which are promoted to be “healthy” natural foods.
Acrylamide was originally used in plastics, cosmetics, and water treatment facilities, and is found in cigarette smoke. It was considered an industrial product until 2002, when researchers discovered acrylamide in food. During this time, adverse reactions to acrylamide were already seen in people who had no known exposure to the substance.
Several studies presented proof for this:
- Researchers writing for the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry discovered moderate levels of the chemical (about five to 50 micrograms per kilogram) in heated protein-rich foods, and higher amounts (150 to 4,000 micrograms per kilogram) in carbohydrate-rich foods like potatoes, beetroot, commercial potato products, and many others. Also, unheated or boiled foods contained less than five micrograms per kilogram. (link)
- In 2003, common Swedish foods, including processed potato products, bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, cookies, snacks, and coffee, were studied for acrylamide levels. Results revealed that the average daily intake of these foods was about 31 micrograms per day. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) data reported that this exposure could be linked to potential health risks. (link)
Foods You’re Eating May Contain Acrylamide
Acrylamide is formed due to the reaction between sugars and an amino acid called asparagine in high-temperature cooking. Some foods like coffee and cereals already contain it. Among the foods that contain it, the highest levels were detected in starchy plant-based foods, such as French fries and potato chips.
Surprisingly, even when the EPA regulates acrylamide in drinking water and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors the substance’s amount in materials that may come in contact with food, these two organizations do not have any control over limiting the amount of the chemical in the food itself.
Despite limits on acrylamide amounts, it was found that a six-ounce serving of French fries contained up to 60 micrograms of acrylamide – about 500 times over the limit. Potato chips were also found to have high levels of acrylamide, which the state of California used as grounds for suing potato chip makers for not educating consumers about the health risks involved.
This was settled in 2008 when Frito-Lay and other potato chip manufacturers reduced the amount of acrylamide in their products to 275 parts per billion (ppb), which was enough to avoid a cancer-warning label.
In 2005, a report issued by the California-based Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) revealed the risks of eating potato chips. It also showed that all the processed potato products tested exceeded the allowed amount of acrylamide by a minimum of 39 times to a maximum of 910 times.
Experts warn against consuming baked chips because they are more dangerous than fried foods. Although regarded as healthier, baked chips were found by the FDA to have more than three times the level of acrylamide than regular chips. (link)
The Dangers of Acrylamide and Processed Foods
What makes acrylamide so dangerous is it increases your risk of certain types of cancer. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer refers to the chemical as a “probable human carcinogen.” Here are select study findings:
- Acrylamide-hemoglobin levels are associated with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. (link)
- The increased intake of foods with acrylamide raised the risks of postmenopausal endometrial and ovarian cancer. (link)
- Neurological problems, such nerve damage and other neurotoxic effects, were discovered in workers who handled the substance.
However, acrylamide was not the only hazardous chemical found in foods exposed to high temperatures. It was through a three-year long EU project called Heat-Generated Food Toxicants (HEATOX) that more than 800 heat-induced compounds were exposed – 52 of which were marked as potential carcinogens. (link)
How to Avoid Ingesting Acrylamide
The good news is: the chemical has so far only been detected in foods exposed to temperatures above 250 degrees Fahrenheit and 120 degrees Celsius – mostly in processed foods. The levels, however, may vary greatly among processed products.
Dr. Joseph Mercola says, “Basing your diet on whole foods, with the majority or a significant portion eaten raw or only lightly cooked, is therefore one of the best ways to avoid this cancer-causing cooking byproduct.”
Additionally, HEATOX scientists advise consuming more home-cooked meals than industrially-prepared or restaurant foods. To give you an idea how to avoid acrylamide at home, here are tips from Dr. Mercola:
- Boil or steam your food – Frying, baking, and broiling produce acrylamide.
- Cook your food for a shorter duration – The longer you cook, the more acrylamide forms.
- Soak raw potatoes for 15 to 30 minutes in water before roasting – This can help reduce the formation of acrylamide.
- Avoid overcooking – The darker the food, the larger its acrylamide content is.
- Opt for more meat, dairy, and seafood – The chemical is often found in plant-based foods, like grain products and potatoes.
Lastly, Dr. Mercola advises that it is best to eat as much raw food as possible, because heavily-cooked or processed foods are often devoid of nutritional value.