The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week set in motion a plan to identify how the chemical acrylamide is getting into food and what can be done to reduce or eliminate it, since it can cause cancer, neurological damage and infertility. Over the next year experts will conduct research and form a consensus with international scientists on how to eliminate acrylamide.
Acrylamide first came to light in April 2002, when the Swedish National Food Administration and Stockholm University reported they had found the chemical in fried and oven-baked foods, especially potato chips and French fries. T
he Swedish researchers said high-temperature cooking caused acrylamide formation and suggested that the chemical might cause several hundred cases of cancer each year in Sweden alone. Since then, scientists in Norway, the United Kingdom and Switzerland have come up with similar results.
Scientists agreed at a June WHO meeting to work together to determine how acrylamide is formed, how to measure it in food, and whether it stays in the body or is metabolized and excreted. The scientists also hope to find out if known non-food acrylamide sources, such as cigarette smoke, are a greater or equal threat compared to food exposure. Finally, they hope to figure out if any acrylamide consumption is safe. The FDA will be helping in all of these efforts, especially focusing on foods that Americans consume most.
In international studies, potato chips, French fries, baked goods like crackers and pastries, breakfast cereals and coffee powder had the highest acrylamide levels. Lower amounts were found in fried fish and fried chicken, chocolate powder and instant malt drinks.
Preliminary FDA tests of American grocery and restaurant foods also found the highest levels in French fries and potato chips, but the range of acrylamides within food categories and among brands was quite large in some cases. That gives hope that there may be ways to minimize or eliminate acrylamide.
There are some clues to why acrylamide forms. Recent studies by North American researchers show that when the amino acid asparagine is heated in combination with glucose, acrylamide is more likely to form. Asparagine is found in many plant-based foods. Low water content and high-temperature cooking also seem to play a role. The Canadian government is urging food manufacturers to identify ways to reduce acrylamide in foods.
Until there are more answers, North Americans should strive to eat a balanced diet heavy on fruits and vegetables and limit fried and fatty foods.
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