- The chemical acrylamide is found in fried, baked, and roasted foods like coffee and french fries.
- Because acrylamide was discovered in food somewhat recently, we don’t have any concrete answers about whether it causes cancer, but scientists are uncovering evidence of a link.
- California coffee shops were previously required to post warnings about acrylamide in their brews, but the state has since reversed its ruling.
- Research has suggested that acrylamide is only dangerous in extremely high doses that humans are unlikely to encounter.
Scientists are constantly making new discoveries about the relationship between food and cancer.
The International Journal of Cancer recently published a study saying that the frequent consumption of very hot tea could increase the risk of esophageal cancer. Other studies have warned about consuming red meat, which has been associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, and eating sugary foods, which act as fuel for cancer cells.
Even the way we process foods can have major implications for our health.
For more than 15 years, scientists have wondered whether consuming acrylamide – a chemical found in burned, charred, and toasted food – negatively affects human health. Foods with higher levels of acrylamide include coffee and french fries, as well as grain-based foods like toast and breakfast cereal.
Because acrylamide was discovered in food somewhat recently, we don’t have any concrete answers about whether it causes cancer, but recent studies have brought us closer to understanding the potential risk.
What is acrylamide, and does it cause cancer?
The discovery of acrylamide dates back about two decades.
In the late 1990s, workers on the Hallandsas Tunnel in Sweden began to experience nausea, dizziness, and a prickling sensation in their fingers. Shortly after, fish in rivers near the tunnel began to die, and cows that had consumed that water became paralyzed.
Scientists discovered that the workers and animals had all been exposed to acrylamide, which seeped into the ground and surface water during construction.
In 2002, scientists learned that acrylamide was also present in starchy foods like bread, cookies, and potato chips. Today it can be found in more than one-third of the calories consumed in Europe and the US.
- REUTERS/Thierry Roge
Food that is fried, baked, or roasted at high temperatures undergoes a process called a Maillard reaction that causes it to brown – think of the golden crust on a baguette or the charred exterior of a roasted marshmallow. This reaction can form acrylamide in small doses.
Thus far, studies have found that acrylamide leads to cancer only in rats and mice exposed to the chemical at much higher doses than what humans would encounter. In its latest risk assessment, the Institute of Food Science and Technology said the results of those animal studies were “indicative of a health concern.”
Food-safety advocates have expressed particular concern about the presence of acrylamide in baby food, since children are more susceptible than adults to cancer-causing chemicals. A 2012 study in Poland found that certain infants were exposed to acrylamide at a rate of more than a dozen times the estimated exposure of the average population.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists acrylamide as a “probable carcinogen” but says it is still researching the link between cancer and food containing acrylamide.
In March, a collaborative study led by the organization found that acrylamide could produce signature genetic mutations in humans that may lead to cancer. In a press release, the study’s senior author said that “future investigations may ultimately provide a robust rationale for reducing the exposure to acrylamide in the general population.”
California shops won’t have to post warnings about acrylamide any longer
California issues cancer warnings for all sorts of items, from boats to wooden furniture to Tiffany lamps.
Last year, a California judge ruled that coffee companies must post warnings about acrylamide in accordance with Proposition 65, a state law that required businesses to alert residents about significant exposures to toxic chemicals. The US Food and Drug Administration said the warnings “would be more likely to mislead consumers than to inform them.”
- Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
In June, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) reversed the judge’s ruling, declaring that coffee did “not pose a significant risk of cancer” – and may even help ward off certain forms of the disease.
“This is a unique situation because we’re dealing with a complex mixture of hundreds of chemicals,” Sam Delson, a spokesman for the OEHHA, told Business Insider earlier this week. “You know, nothing is 100% risk-free, but … I’m a cancer survivor myself, and happy to drink coffee.”
But coffee isn’t the only item that’s been given a warning label.
More than a decade ago, restaurant chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Wendy’s, and Burger King also agreed to post warnings in their California stores about acrylamide in french fries. McDonald’s in the UK has adopted methods to reduce the presence of the chemical, such as cooking at lower temperatures or switching to potatoes with less starch.
In 2008, Heinz and Frito-Lay each settled lawsuits with the state of California after agreeing to reduce the concentrations of acrylamide in their products. The attorney general at the time, Jerry Brown, called the settlements “a victory for public health and safety.”
The acrylamide dose makes the poison
One of the general principles of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. We can get sick when we’re exposed to chemicals in extremely high amounts, but an order of french fries or a cup of coffee isn’t likely to kill you.
“Adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide could consume 160 times as much and still only be at a level that toxicologists think unlikely to cause increased tumors in mice,” David Spiegelhalter, a University of Cambridge professor who studies public risk, told Popular Science last year.
As with any chemical, new evidence could change our understanding of its relationship to cancer.
In the 1980s, any product containing the zero-calorie sweetener saccharin – sold under the brand name Sweet’N Low – was required to have a warning label saying it was carcinogenic. The concerns were based on a single study of saccharin exposure in rats, but it turned out to be flawed: The rats used in the experiment were already prone to a parasite that made them especially vulnerable to bladder cancer. Following that discovery, the US Department of Health and Human Services removed saccharin from its list of cancer-causing agents.
While the risks of consuming acrylamide are not yet fully understood, new studies could find that it’s harmful, or that it’s not at all a risk to human health. For now, people shouldn’t worry about cancer when they’re roasting marshmallows or ordering french fries – but they might want to stay tuned for future research.