Nutrition: acrylamide, burnt toast, and cancer

Tuesday 08 May 2018

I first wrote a blog on acrylamide in April 2014. So, to many of you who read my blogs, the recent news about acrylamide will in fact be old news.

I wanted to revisit this after the recent headlines that hit the press about acrylamide and cancer. The food standards agency (FSA) have brought out a new set of guidelines about acrylamide in food. Before we look at these, let us remind ourselves again about what acrylamide is and how it is formed on foods.

Acrylamide is known as the crispy carcinogen because it is formed on food when it is browned or burned i.e. food that is cooked at very high temperatures above 117’F (47’C) for three minutes or longer.

It is formed when a chemical reaction between certain sugars and an amino acid called Aspargine in the food is heated. Examples are burnt barbequed meat, burnt toast, chips, crisps, dry roasted cereals to make crackers, breakfast cereals and biscuits. The levels are regularly analysed by the Food and Drug Administration and there are now moves to legislate for the introduction of acrylamide labelling on food products.

Although the safe limit of acrylamide for food has been set at 10 parts per billion (ppb) some foods have been found to contain more than 100 times that amount. It appears that crisps, taco shells and breakfast cereals are the worst. Potato chips averaged 1,250 ppb and Pringles 1480 ppb!! Quite staggering.

Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke.

In the past, to determine whether acrylamide is a cancer forming toxin or not there were many research papers written based mainly on work carried out in the lab and not on humans.

The recent research has not really moved on much since then. There are still only cohort studies and words used like, probable, associated, possible, unclear, and could, when talking about the effect of acrylamide and cancer. However, it is still worth paying attention to the new guidelines from the Food Standards Agency that have recently been published regarding the use and preparation of some foods.

Recent quidelines

  • Go for gold as a general rule of thumb. Aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, roasting or toasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread.
  • Check the pack - check for cooking instructions on the pack and follow carefully when frying or oven cooking packaged products such as chips, roast potatoes and parsnips. The on pack instructions are designed to cook the product correctly. This ensures that you are not cooking starchy foods for too long or at a temperature that is too high.
  • Eat a varied balanced diet - while we cannot completely avoid risks like acrylamide in food, eating a varied balanced diet will reduce your risk of cancer. See my blog called The Balanced Plate 13/5/14 for more information about diet.
  • Do not keep raw potatoes in the fridge if you intend to cook them at high temperatures (roasting or frying). Storing them in the fridge may lead to more free sugars in the potatoes (a process sometimes referred to as cold sweetening) and can increase overall acrylamide levels.

The FSA is working with the food industry to identify and implement measures to reduce acrylamide levels in food. Note that Cancer Research UK agreed that eating fewer high calories foods like crisps, chips, and some breakfast cereals and biscuits, which are the major sources of acrylamide would be of benefit, while pointing out that the link between acrylamide and cancer in humans is currently not clear nor consistent.

So, what is this telling us?

My advice would be similar to that which I gave in the first blog i.e. Basically, not to be overly concerned or worried. In my opinion the foods high in acrylamide are also not that healthy in lots of other ways.

They are generally high in fat, contain too much salt and are often full of preservatives and colourings. They are often high in empty calories contributing no vitamins or minerals to our diet, nutrients that we know help reduce the risk of cancer.

So, if you are eating a good healthy balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables the level of acrylamide should only be a minimal risk to our health and should not really be of concern. But on the other hand if you live on fried foods and processed foods your acrylamide levels may pose a problem.

How to minimise your levels

If you are concerned about acrylamide in food that there are several steps that you can take to minimise your levels

  • Focus on a diet around unprocessed whole natural foods.
  • Obviously avoid the well-browned processed types of foods like crisps, French fries, well baked breakfast cereals and crisp breads.
  • Eat your toast lightly browned not dark.
  • Avoid frying as a method of cooking and use moist methods like steaming, boiling .and poaching.
  • If you roast or bake, make sure that the food is not over browned but golden.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke.
  • Avoid too much alcohol.
  • Avoid regularly eating more than 90g of red or processed meat a day.


Blog originally written by Caroline March 2017 - links updated 2021

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