French fries. Potato chips. Processed cereals. You probably know these aren’t the best foods for you because of the calories and saturated fat. But these foods have another potential risk associated with them.
They often contain the chemical acrylamide, which has been linked to cancer.
“Acrylamide arises in certain foods because of a chemical reaction when they are cooked at high temperature,” says dietitian Kendall Stelwagen. “Acrylamide forms when foods like potatoes and cereals become crispy and brown. It even forms in roasted coffee beans.”
That means acrylamide is in the crunch of potato chips, the crispy edges of French fries, and in toasted snacks and rich roasted coffees. But Stelwagen says it’s not as much of a worry as it sounds.
Here’s what she wants you to know about acrylamide and cancer risk.
1. The link between acrylamide in food and cancer is not clear.
The only studies to show a clear link between acrylamide and cancer are animal studies. These involved very high levels of the chemical. Studies that followed people over time did not find a link between eating foods with acrylamide and cancer.
“Researchers have studied this for about 20 years now and no definite link between acrylamide and cancer in people has been found,” says Stelwagen. “A link was found in animal studies, but those studies involved between 1,000 and 100,000 times the amount of acrylamide that a normal person would be exposed to.”
2. The amount of acrylamide in food is not regulated.
Acrylamide in drinking water is monitored and regulated, as is acrylamide in products that have contact with food. But acrylamide in food is not monitored or regulated.
"It’s very difficult to measure the amount of acrylamide in foods because there is so much variation in food production and even in the foods themselves,” says Stelwagen. “From one potato to another, the amount of acrylamide that forms in cooking can be very different. And the cooking processes can be different, too.”
This makes it difficult to regulate acrylamide – and makes further research challenging.
3. Acrylamide is found in large amounts in cigarette smoke.
One place where we know there is a significant amount of acrylamide is in cigarette smoke. Smokers have around three to five times more acrylamide in their blood than non-smokers.
If you smoke, quit as soon as you can. If you don’t smoke, avoid secondhand and thirdhand smoke so you escape the toxins it contains.
4. There are ways to reduce the acrylamide you consume.
If you are concerned about acrylamide, there are ways you can reduce your exposure. In addition to avoiding tobacco smoke, you can cook food for less time to reduce the amount of crisping and browning. You can also dry fried food in the oven before eating it, lightly boil potatoes before cooking and avoid storing potatoes in the fridge.
“Food manufacturers have tried to reduce acrylamide in some foods, but it usually results in loss of quality,” says Stelwagen. “The browning reaction is what gives food the nice tasty flavor and the appearance that we like, so I recommend eating the food as is in moderation, as a small part of a healthy diet.”
5. The real reason to moderate these foods is not the acrylamide.
When it comes to cancer risk and food, the risk of weight gain is the real reason to limit French fries, potato chips and other carbohydrate snacks in your diet. Extra body weight is now the second leading preventable cause of cancer behind smoking. These foods can also increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
“I’m never going to tell people to not eat French fries or potato chips, but if you tell me you’re eating them every day, we would have some concerns,” says Stelwagen. “But those concerns are going to be much more about triglyceride levels, blood glucose levels and weight gain than a build-up of acrylamide.”