Acrylamide has been hitting the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. It’s not until 2002 that we realised this compound was forming in many of the foods we eat, and as such, we’re only just coming to understand the effects of its consumption by humans.
The Food Standards Agency have now issued official advice on acrylamide; highlighting it as a potential cancer risk and urging us to minimise our exposure to, and risk of consuming it.
But what exactly is it? How does it form and what foods contain it? And is it really that dangerous? Read on to discover more.
What is acrylamide and how does it form?
Acrylamide is a chemical compound. It’s a natural by-product created in the process of heating particular foods; namely starchy, potato-based and grain-based produce. While we may have only discovered its presence in cooked foods in the 21st century, it’s likely humans have been consuming acrylamide through food for centuries, entirely unaware.
The process through which it’s formed is known as the ‘Malliard Reaction’. This is when, during cooking, naturally present sugars and amino acids combine within food to give it its distinctive flavour, texture, colour and smell. Unfortunately, acrylamide is a by-product of this process in many foods.
What’s the risk from acrylamide?
If acrylamide-prone foods are cooked at a high temperature for a long time, the levels of this compound found within them can skyrocket. Foods most at risk of this include roast potatoes, chips, parsnips and toasted bread; while the common production process of snacks like crisps, cakes and biscuits also makes these foods susceptible. Recent research has shown that coffee beans may also be vulnerable.
But why is this a problem? Research has linked high consumption of acrylamide to tumour formation. While scientists haven’t made any firm conclusions yet; it’s widely acknowledged and agreed that acrylamide is likely carcinogenic, and promotes the formation of cancerous tumours within the body.
How can I cut down on acrylamide?
The FSA (Food Standards Agency) has now released guidelines advising us on why we should, and how we can cut down on our intake of acrylamide- as a precaution.
They do stress that removing acrylamide from your diet entirely is an unrealistic goal, and to attempt to cut out all of the foods which often contain it is unadvisable because it would restrict your ability to practice a balanced diet.
It’s also important to consider the scale of the risk. Even if our intake of acrylamide does put us at an increased risk of cancer, it pales in comparison to some other common risk factors; such as poor diet, obesity and smoking. Acrylamide itself is found within cigarette smoke, and smoking causes a spike of acrylamide concentrations in the blood three times higher than any known food source. The FSA’s primary advice remains to consume a healthy, balanced diet and quit smoking in order to have the greatest impact when it comes to reducing our cancer risk.
There are a number of steps you can take to reduce your acrylamide consumption. These include:
- Opting to boil, steam and microwave acrylamide-prone foods as opposed to roasting, grilling or frying them.
- Cutting back on burned or browned foods. The FSA recommend foods are only cooked ‘until golden or yellow’; particularly when it comes to toast and potatoes.
- Don’t keep raw potatoes in the fridge. This leads to the increased formation of sugars within the potatoes, which results in increased acrylamide production when eventually cooked. Instead, store them in a cool and dry place, such as a cupboard.
- Cut back on foods that are at risk of acrylamide-formation during their preparation process; these include crisps, cakes and biscuits.
For great ideas to help you replace those acrylamide-prone foods in your diet, check out our recipes here.