Do We Need To Worry About Acrylamide In Our Food Causing Cancer?

Do We Need To Worry About Acrylamide In Our Food Causing Cancer?

Every so often, a molecule called acrylamide works its way back into the public sphere of attention, usually with warnings in tow about its presence in food and the apparent dangers it poses to our health. But how much of this is true, and should we be worried about it?

What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a natural by-product formed during high-temperature (above 120°C/248°F) cooking – such as frying, toasting, or roasting – of food products, particularly starchy ones. Its creator is the Maillard reaction, the process that leads to the browning of food and the resulting distinctive flavor, like those delicious burnt bits of lasagna.

Structural model of Acrylamide on the blackboard.

The chemical structure of acrylamide, also written as CH2=CHC(O)NH2 (C for carbon, H, for hydrogen, O for oxygen, and N for nitrogen).

Image credit: Jurgis Mankauskas/

In this reaction, sugars and amino acids – often asparagine – react to form acrylamide, which is odorless and water soluble. When it’s in the body, acrylamide is broken down into another molecule called glycidamide.

Which foods contain acrylamide?

Acrylamide can be found in all sorts of cooked food products, but one of the biggest sources is thought to be fried potato products (especially those made with fresh potatoes) such as chips, French fries, and roast potatoes. It can also be found in toast – particularly if you’re inclined to burning it – cookies, cereals, and coffee.

Does it pose a health risk?

There’s an abundance of headlines suggesting (or sometimes declaring) that acrylamide in our food is bad for us and causes cancer. Many popped up after 2002, when the Swedish National Food Administration sounded a so-called “alarm” on the presence of acrylamide within food. 

Sales of chips in Sweden dropped by 40 percent in the week after the announcement, whilst a major chip producer in the country saw share prices fall. Then, a couple of months later, the status quo returned. It’s a good example of how the way science is communicated can have very real effects on people’s behavior.

Despite the concerns raised by that announcement over 20 years ago, there’s simply not enough quality evidence – at least in humans – to directly support acrylamide causing cancer. That could be for a multitude of reasons, the first being that there’s been some difficulty in figuring out how much acrylamide people are taking in based on their reported diets.

Then there’s the matter of ethical boundaries. “To really be able to be to say that this causes cancer you need to do clinical trials,” Rashmi Sinha, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute, told Inverse. “But you can’t do clinical trials with things that are possible carcinogens.”

That being said, there’s enough animal evidence that some authoritative bodies believe it warrants further investigation and to approach consumption with caution.

For example, in studies of rat cells (as well as entire rats) there’s been evidence to suggest that acrylamide can lead to DNA or chromosomal damage and defects in the repair of that damage, common features that can lead to cancer. 

However, there have also been some toxicology studies that show humans and rodents both absorb acrylamide at different rate and metabolize it differently, so animal findings don’t necessarily translate to us. So what do the officials say? 

In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducted a risk assessment of acrylamide in food. Evaluating the available scientific data, it delivered a scientific opinion on the matter, with the following conclusions:

  • Animal studies demonstrate that acrylamide and glycidamide are genotoxic (DNA or chromosome-damaging) and carcinogenic (potentially cancer-causing).
  • However, there’s limited evidence from human studies to suggest dietary intake of acrylamide increases our risk of cancer.
  • The level of dietary exposure to acrylamide could be a concern – at least in terms of causing abnormal cell growth – for public health if further quality evidence in humans supports it.
  • Current levels of dietary exposure to acrylamide aren’t of concern when it comes to other health issues.

After a call to revisit those conclusions with new data, the EFSA reached the same scientific opinion in 2022

As for other parts of the world, whilst the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that the risk isn’t clear, the US National Toxicology Program and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) are of the opinion that dietary acrylamide does pose a human health concern.

Reducing acrylamide in food (if you want to)

Despite the evidence for human risk not being clear-cut, organizations still have advice on how to reduce the levels of acrylamide in food should people wish to do so.

This can include choice of ingredients; for example, fried potato products made from potato dough (like Pringles – other deliciousness is available) instead of fresh potato are estimated to contain around 20 percent less acrylamide.

When it comes to coffee, the type of roast can also make a difference – light roasts tend to contain more acrylamide than medium or dark roasts.

Then there’s how people cook at home. Air fryers, which have shot up in popularity in recent years, are thought to produce around 30 to 40 percent more acrylamide than deep oil fryers, according to the EFSA. Concerns about their risks have been bubbling in headlines and social media, but given the lack of conclusive evidence about the health risks of acrylamide in the diet, you’re probably good to keep cooking your nuggets this way.

Regardless of the cooking method, the UK’s Food Standards Agency recommends to “aim for a golden yellow color or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods”. That being said, if you’d like to continue eating burnt toast with reckless abandon, we’re not going to stop you.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions. 

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