Humans have been eating acrylamide, a chemical that forms in some foods when they are exposed to high heat, for as long as we have been cooking, but it wasn’t until 2002 that its presence in foods was discovered.
The Maillard reaction, a naturally occurring reaction between specific proteins and carbohydrates when heated, gives breads their golden crusts and potato chips their crispy crunch, but under certain conditions it also gives rise to acrylamide, classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The science on cancer
Acrylamide is well established as a carcinogen in rodents, at doses estimated to be 1,000-100,000 times higher than amounts people get in their diet. But research on humans is inconclusive. An exhaustive review of human studies on acrylamide and cancer was published in Nutrition and Cancer in 2014; out of 26 studies, only six showed increased cancer risk with the highest dietary acrylamide intake.
A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found no increase in endometrial cancer risk among 768 non-smoking, postmenopausal women who had the highest blood levels of an acrylamide marker (a new, more accurate measurement of acrylamide intake). Expect more research on the horizon.
The watch for acrylamide
Though the science may be confusing, it’s still a good idea to keep your acrylamide intake under control. Acrylamide is found mainly in foods made from starchy plants, like potatoes and grains, when they are cooked for long periods at high temperatures. Ready-to-eat cereals and highly processed foods, like French fries, potato chips and packaged cookies, are the biggest sources. Roasting coffee beans gives rise to acrylamide, but levels go down when the coffee is brewed. Acrylamide doesn’t generally form in dairy, meat or fish products, raw foods, fruits or low-starch vegetables. Among high-acrylamide foods, the actual amount varies widely depending on how the food is processed and cooked.
Fortunately, consuming whole, minimally processed foods is one way to limit your exposure. And using lower-temperature methods of cooking, such as boiling, steaming and sautéing, instead of frying or roasting starchy foods can reduce acrylamide too.
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