Acrylamide, «uh KRIHL uh myd», is a white, odorless chemical that has a variety of industrial applications. It is primarily used to make polyacrylamide, a substance involved in water purification and in manufacturing paper, dyes, cosmetics, plastics, food packages, caulking, soil conditioners, and adhesives. Polyacrylamide is harmless, but acrylamide is a toxic (poisonous) chemical that also makes up a component of cigarette smoke. Products made with polyacrylamide often contain very small amounts of acrylamide. While the low levels of acrylamide in these products present no threat to consumers, workers who are exposed to large amounts of the chemical could suffer health problems. In 2002, scientists in Sweden discovered acrylamide in a wide variety of common foods. Since this discovery, scientists have become more concerned about possible health risks the chemical may pose.
Acrylamide in food. Scientists have found acrylamide in a variety of popular foods, including potato chips, french fries, cookies, breads, and breakfast cereals. It also is found in pies, cakes, coffee, peanut butter, roasted almonds, and other foods that are heated during processing. Acrylamide occurs in many packaged, restaurant, and home-cooked foods, but uncooked foods contain little or none of the chemical. Levels of acrylamide can vary widely among foods, even among different brands of a particular food.
Acrylamide is created naturally in foods, especially carbohydrate or starch-based foods cooked at temperatures greater than 250 °F (120 °C). Levels of the chemical increase with heating time. Scientists believe that asparagine, an amino acid (protein building block) found in many foods, reacts with glucose, a common sugar, at high temperatures to form acrylamide. This reaction is most likely to occur during frying, roasting, baking, or broiling. Acrylamide is less likely to form in foods that are boiled.
Health concerns. Acrylamide can cause nerve damage in people who have been exposed to high levels. Scientists have also found that acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory rats and mice.
Scientists have not done many studies of the relationship between acrylamide and the development of cancer in human beings. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO), has determined that evidence for acrylamide as a human cancer risk is limited. However, both the IARC and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classify acrylamide as a probable carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) for human beings. In addition, scientists consider acrylamide to be a potential genotoxin, a substance that can damage the genetic material of cells, causing harmful mutations.
The EPA has established acceptable levels of acrylamide in drinking water and air. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the amount of acrylamide in packaging materials and processes that contact food. There are, however, no current guidelines that regulate the amount of acrylamide in food. Scientists estimate that, in the United States, an adult takes in an average of about 30 to 35 micrograms (0.0000011 to 0.0000012 ounces) of acrylamide per day from all sources. This amount is far below the amount known to cause nerve damage or suspected to cause cancer.
Scientists have cautioned that the actual amount of acrylamide that the body absorbs from food is not known. They point out that many foodborne toxins are metabolized (broken down) into harmless substances or simply eliminated from the body. As a result, scientists are not sure if acrylamide in food actually poses a risk.
Further studies. Scientists are trying to determine precisely how acrylamide forms in food, how much of it exists in the food supply throughout the world, and what health risks result from breathing, eating, or drinking the chemical. Food industry scientists are also working to develop methods for reducing acrylamide levels in food.
Medical experts do not recommend that people change their diets to avoid foods that may contain acrylamide. Instead, they advise people to eat a healthy, balanced diet that is low in fat and rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. However, some scientists have suggested that young children and pregnant women should limit their exposure to acrylamide.
See also Pure food and drug laws (Foods).