The Acrylamide Story: does it really cause cancer?

Nutrition team

The recent publication of a Swedish food survey regarding a substance called acrylamide has caused a media sensation! According to the papers, any food you care to mention now has the possibility to promote cancer. Is this something we should really be worrying about or is it just another food scare story?

The scientists reported finding acrylamide in a variety of cooked foods, but especially potato chips and baked or fried carbohydrate-rich foods. They took the unusual step of releasing this information at a press conference even before it was submitted for publication in a scientific journal because they believe it is of great public health concern.

Acrylamide and polyacrylamide are used in industry for the production of plastics. It is thought that the main source of human exposure to acrylamide in the general population is through drinking water and smoking tobacco. Exposure through drinking water is small and the EU has determined maximum levels of 0.1 microgram per litre of water.

Recent analyses have indicated that the exposure to acrylamide is probably considerably higher than previously thought (for non-smokers) from consumption of certain foods that have been heated. Acrylamide is water-soluble and is quickly absorbed in the digestive tract.

Excretion via the urine is fast and half of the acrylamide is cleared from the body in a few hours. Its toxicological effects are well known: DNA damage and at high doses, neurological and reproductive effects have been observed. Prolonged exposure has induced tumours in rats, but cancer in man has not been convincingly shown. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified acrylamide as "probably carcinogenic to humans".

The amounts estimated to be in our foods are still more than 1,000 times less than those shown to induce mutations in mice. From a scientific point of view, the extrapolation from the extremely high doses used in mice to very low human exposure should not be made as results could be misleading at best and scare-mongering at worst.

Two relevant sentences from the Swedish scientists' own report are "Due to lack of data, it is not possible to issue...recommendations to consumers or to the food industry" and "Considering our present knowledge, the contribution from different food groups is extremely uncertain."

In fact, cancer rates have not increased since commercial baking and frying started, when adjusted for the large increase in life expectancy. This group has worked on this issue for years with almost no publicity, for example, acrylamide was found in tomatoes 10 years ago, but the media didn’t pick up on the issue then.

The new report suggests that cooking, especially frying, actually causes acrylamide to form in foods but this must be confirmed before any worry is expended on this issue. You can avoid acrylamide by not eating or drinking anything. But the result of that is much more certain than a possible increase in cancer risk 30 years from now.

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