Did you know that most French fries and potato chips contain insane levels of acrylamide?
OK, wait. First, what’s acrylamide?
Acrylamide is a chemical substance and is *known* to be a carcinogen. The problem here is that, at present, acrylamide has been confirmed to cause cancers only in laboratory animals. Human tests are in progress, but from the results so far, there hasn’t been a definite conclusion (read the papers referenced below).
UK’s Food Standards Agency provides a concise introduction to the substance.
Acrylamide is formed naturally when starch-rich foods are fried, baked, grilled, toasted or microwaved at high temperatures for example chips, roast potatoes, crisps and bread. It has also been found in a variety of other foods. It has caused cancer in rats in laboratory tests and its presence in some foods may harm people’s health. It has not been found in any raw or boiled foods.
Generally, French fries and potato chips are usually cooked at 190 oC (374 oF) - a temperature high enough to cause the formation of acrylamide.
According to some studies, in foods like French fries and potato chips, acrylamide is present to the tune of about 300 times more than the *safe* limits recommended by WHO (World Health Organization). And yeah, this *nutritional* fact does not appear in the dietary nutritional information that goes with the packaging. By the way, this is not really *news* - the controversy has been raging on since 2002.
Anyways, before we proceed with acrylamide, let us dedicate this post to the people who regularly eat those things in spite of the saturated fat and trans fat that these things contain (see McDonald’s example below). Most packed potato chips don’t contain trans fat (now-a-days), but wait till you see the acrylamide data below.
McDonald’s French Fries (Medium 114 g):
Total Calories: 380
Total Fat: 20 g (% Daily Value = 31)
Saturated Fat: 4 g (% Daily Value = 20)
Trans Fat: 5 g
Here is why food with saturated fat and trans fat is not good for your health:
Scientific evidence shows that consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad cholesterol,” levels, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, more than 12.5 million Americans have CHD, and more than 500,000 die each year. That makes CHD one of the leading causes of death in the United States. [source: FDA Consumer Magazine, Oct 2003]
With that out of the way, let us now look at the hidden monster - acrylamide.
According to the Center for Science in Public Interest, here are typical levels of acrylamide in some foods (the first entry represents the safe limit of acrylamide intake through water as set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)):
The substance first attracted much attention (and panic) when a group of scientists from the Swedish National Food Agency confirmed in 2002 that certain starchy foods when heated to high temperatures form high levels of acrylamide - a known carcinogen. [references: Swedish National Food Agency, Risk Assessment of Acrylamide in Foods - Toxicological Sciences Journal]
Later, many consumer groups, research groups and other agencies took up this subject and here are the issues they have raised. To be truly “well-informed”, it is necessary that we look at both sides of the story.
The amount of acrylamide in a large order of fast-food French fries is at least 300 times more than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of water. Acrylamide is sometimes used in water-treatment facilities.
“I estimate that acrylamide causes several thousand cancers per year in Americans,” said Clark University research professor Dale Hattis. Hattis, an expert in risk analysis, based his estimate on standard EPA projections of risks from animal studies and limited sampling of acrylamide levels in Swedish and American foods.
A Review of the Toxicology of Acrylamide - Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 2006.
There is universal consensus among interntational food safety groups in all countries that examined the issue of ACR in the diet that not enough information is available at this time to make informed decisions on which to base any regulatory action. Too little is known about levels of this chemical in different foods and the potential risk from dietary exposure. Avoidance of foods containing ACR would result in worse health issues from an unbalanced diet or pathogens from under cooked foods. There is some consensus that low levels of ACR in the diet are not a concern for neurotoxicity or reproductive toxicity in humans, although further research is need to study the long-term, low-level cumulative effects on the nervous system. Any relationship to cancer risk from dietary exposure is hypothetical at this point and awaits more definitive studies.
Risk Assessment of Acrylamide in Foods - Journal of Toxicological Sciences, 2003.
Any risk of neurotoxic or reproductive toxic effects associated with acrylamide in foods is judged to be very small.
The Carcinogenicity of Acrylamide - Journal of Mutation Research
Acrylamide is carcinogenic to experimental mice and rats, causing tumors at multiple organ sites in both species when given in drinking water or by other means. In mice, acrylamide increases the incidence of alveologenic lung tumors and initiates skin tumors after dermal exposures. In two bioassays in rats, acrylamide administered in drinking water consistently induced peritesticular mesotheliomas, thyroid follicular cell tumors, and mammary gland tumors, as well as primary brain tumors when all such tumors were included in data analysis.
Epidemiologic studies of possible health effects from exposures to acrylamide have not produced consistent evidence of increased cancer risk, in either occupationally exposed workers or the general populations of several countries in which acrylamide is present in certain foods and beverages.
So apparently, some scientists are still *not sure* whether acrylamide is going to cause harm to human beings. Personally, the fact that it causes cancer in laboratory animals is enough to convince me to not eat French fries and potato chips anymore.
You can take two approaches here: 1. You can stop eating those acrylamide-rich things till scientists conclusively prove that acrylamide is NOT harmful to human beings; or 2. Keep eating them till scientists conclusively prove that acrylamide DOES cause cancer in human beings. It’s a no-brainer choice for me.
Although FDA does a commendable job at conveying authentic information and seems to be on top of the situation, I think it chickens out of mentioning anything about French fries and potato chips (source):
The studies did not show increased cancer risk with acrylamide exposure. However, these studies do not rule out the possibility that acrylamide in food can cause cancer because they have limited power to detect this effect. Also, we do not have enough information to rule out the possibility that subtle effects can occur on the developing nervous system at acrylamide doses lower than those that have been studied so far in animals and humans.
It keeps on harping on this particular boiler-plate message when it comes to acrylamide:
At this time, FDA advises consumers to eat a balanced diet, choosing a variety of foods that are low in trans fat and saturated fat, and rich in high-fiber grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Although, FDA’s message does not incriminate specific foods (citing insufficient evidence), I am pretty sure that fries or chips don’t form a part of a “balanced diet” and certainly do not confirm to “low in trans fat and saturated fat” advice. So even on these counts, fries and chips should be out of your diet.
For those who think it’s a non-issue, check out FDA’s “Acrylamide in Food” action plan, and try to answer a simple question: if it is a non-issue, why is FDA working so hard on acrylamide related studies for some many years? To me it’s obvious that very pressing health concerns are at stake here. And it’s not just the FDA that’s working hard on this issue - many labs in Europe and Canada are also collaborating. So, it’s not like some fancy research topic for an arbitrary crazy scientist in a government research lab.
So do yourself a favor before someone says “Oops! acrylamide does cause cancer after all” - stop eating French fries and potato chips. At least reduce your intake as much as you can. Occasional indulgence may be alright, but make an attempt to avoid eating them every time you order food from a fast-food outlet.
To read more about acrylamide in food, visit the pages below:
- World Health Organization website: Acrylamide in Food FAQ
- UK Food Standards Agency: Acrylamide: Your Questions Answered