To Your Health

What's the deal with acrylamide?

Q. What's the deal with acrylamide? A friend who is pregnant is so concerned about acrylamide in her food that she cuts the crust off her bread and never eats anything that's fried or broiled. Does everyone need to be that careful?

A. At present there is no compelling evidence that eating the amount of acrylamide found in a typical American diet increases the risk of cancer or birth defects in humans. Acrylamide, although it probably is a carcinogen, is only one of many risk factors that we are exposed to daily in our food. There are a great number of substances in food that can be categorized as carcinogens on the basis of laboratory tests. This does not mean that cancer is inevitable, since there are also many factors in wholesome food that can protect us from cancer.

Chemically, acrylamide is a very simple molecule used in making plastic and has long been a concern as an industrial contaminant. It is also produced when certain starchy foods, such as potato, are cooked at high temperatures. Before April of 2002, when Swedish scientists published a report on the amount of acrylamide in a wide range of foods, it was not known to be present at high levels in the American food supply. The unexpected finding that consumption of normal amounts of cooked food can expose us to high levels of acrylamide produced a firestorm of speculation on its danger.

The level of acrylamide in food varies considerably, but potato chips generally contain the highest levels, five-to-100 times that which is found in any other food. Potato chips and french fries account for about a quarter of the acrylamide in the American diet. A major concern is that children and young adults have a higher consumption of these foods than do older adults. Replacing such foods with raw nuts, fruits, and vegetables would improve nutritional intake as well as reduce acrylamide intake.

Acrylamide is formed when L-asparagine, an amino acid abundant in several starchy foods, is heated above 212 degrees in the presence of certain sugars. Now that we know how it forms, and that we can reduce the acrylamide formation without dramatically affecting the tastiness of the food, there is hope that we can reduce the level of acrylamide in our diets. Several methods have been found for reducing acrylamide formation in commercial and home-prepared foods made from potato. These include storing raw potatoes at room temperature rather than refrigerating, soaking potato slices in diluted vinegar to remove some of the asparagine and sugar, and frying at a slightly lower temperature.

In one study, adding ascorbic acid (the acid form of vitamin C) before cooking potato products in a microwave reduced acrylamide formation by more than 90%. Adding citric acid before cooking will also reduce acrylamide formation, and citric acid is cheaper than ascorbic acid but more difficult to find.

Acrylamide in bakery products can be reduced by using sucrose (table sugar) rather than glucose or high fructose corn syrup as the sweetener and by using sodium bicarbonate rather than ammonium bicarbonate as leavening.

Some simple lifestyle adjustments to reduce your intake of acrylamide are worthwhile, but by avoiding extremely high temperature cooking you can still enjoy fried, grilled, broiled, or baked food, at least on special occasions.

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