Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a chemical produced naturally in food as a result of cooking starch rich food at high temperatures, such as when baking or frying. It is also likely to be produced by grilling and roasting food.

What is the problem?

In 2002, Swedish studies revealed that high levels of acrylamide formed during the frying or baking of potato or cereal products. This raised worldwide public concern because studies in laboratory animals suggest acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer in humans.

This is not a new risk, acrylamide is formed in food by common cooking practices and so people are likely to have been exposed to acrylamide in their diet for some considerable time.

What do we know about acrylamide and its health risks?

Although acrylamide has caused nerve damage in people who have been exposed to very high levels as a result of occupational and accidental exposure through industrial use, it is less clear what the risks are from the acrylamide found in food. Acrylamide is considered to be a genotoxic carcinogen because it has the potential to cause cancer by interacting with the genetic material (DNA) in cells. Based on independent expert scientific advice, the Agency believes that exposure to such chemicals should be as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).

Given the uncertainties in exposure and the possible exposure to sources other than food, scientists have concluded that it is not possible to draw any definitive conclusions about the cancer risks of acrylamide in food.

What is the Agency doing about acrylamide levels in processed food?

The Agency has funded several research projects and surveys on acrylamide that have further developed our understanding of how it is formed and measures to reduce it.

The Agency continues to meet with its stakeholder group on process contaminants to discuss ways of reducing acrylamide exposure.

Should I stop eating foods that are high in acrylamide?

The Agency does not advise people to stop eating any of these foods, but you should follow Department of Health advice from the NHS Choices website on eating a healthy, balanced diet. We also recommend that, when making chips at home, they are cooked to a light golden colour. Bread should be toasted to the lightest colour acceptable. However, manufacturers' instructions for frying or oven-heating foods, such as chips, should be followed carefully.

What about the food industry?

The Agency is working with stakeholders, including the food industry, to increase knowledge and understanding of how to reduce acrylamide in food. As part of the international effort, the food industry is also carrying out research to find ways of reducing the levels of acrylamide in food. FoodDrinkEurope (which represents the food and drink industry’s interests at the European and international level) has produced a document known as the ‘toolkit’ that outlines ways of reducing acrylamide in food manufacture for a variety of foods and processes. FoodDrinkEurope has also developed brochures for small businesses on reducing acrylamide in processed food.

What's being done internationally?

  • The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/ World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded that levels of dietary exposure to acrylamide indicate a human health concern and advised that exposure to acrylamide in food should be as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).
  • The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) has developed a Code of Practice for the reduction of acrylamide in food to disseminate best practice to manufacturers.
  • The European Commission has recommended that member states continue the collection of acrylamide monitoring data and as with previous surveys send the data to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
  • An EFSA report on the monitoring and exposure assessment of acrylamide in food across the EU concluded that to detect clearer trends with regards to the levels of acrylamide, the number of surveillance years needs to be extended.

Are there any limits set for acrylamide in food?

There are currently no regulatory maximum limits for acrylamide in food. However, the European Commission (EC) has introduced 'indicative values' for those food groups considered to contribute the most to consumer dietary exposure to acrylamide. Indicative values are not maximum limits and are intended only as a guide to prompt investigation when higher levels occur so that enforcement authorities can gain more data to understand better where problems may be.

Where a product exceeds an indicative value, local authority investigating officers will gather information and data from the food business operator and inform the Agency. The Agency will then summarise the findings and report these to the European Commission. This information will help refine industry’s mitigation strategies for acrylamide.

It is possible that maximum limits may be proposed sometime in the future.

Why is acrylamide involved in the treatment of drinking water?

Polyacrylamide is used as a cleaning agent for drinking water. It combines with solid material, making it easier to filter and remove unwanted substances from the water. During this process, acrylamide is released when the polyacrylamide comes into contact with the water. For further information, please contact the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

There is a legal limit set by the EU is 0.1 microgram per litre of drinking water.