Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a chemical created when some foods, particularly starchy foods like potatoes and bread, are cooked for long periods at high temperatures, such as when baking, frying, grilling, toasting and roasting.

What is acrylamide

Acrylamide is a chemical substance formed by a reaction between amino acids and sugars. It typically occurs when foods with high starch content such as potatoes, root vegetables and bread, are cooked at high temperatures (over 120°C) in a process of frying, roasting or baking.

Acrylamide is not deliberately added to foods, it is a natural by-product of the cooking process and has always been present in our food.

Potential health effects of acrylamide

Laboratory tests show that acrylamide in the diet causes cancer in animals. While evidence from human studies on the impact of acrylamide in the diet is inconclusive, scientists agree that acrylamide in food has the potential to cause cancer in humans as well and it would be prudent to reduce exposure.

Foods high in acrylamide

Acrylamide is found in wide range of foods including roasted potatoes and root vegetables, chips, crisps, toast, cakes, biscuits, cereals and coffee.

How to reduce acrylamide at home

Go for gold

As a general rule of thumb, aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread.

Check the pack

Check for cooking instructions on the pack and follow carefully when frying or oven-cooking packaged food products such as chips, roast potatoes and parsnips. The on-pack instructions are designed to cook the product correctly. This ensures that you aren’t cooking starchy foods for too long or at temperatures which are too high.

Don't keep raw potatoes in the fridge

Don’t store raw potatoes in the fridge if you intend to cook them at high temperatures (e.g. roasting or frying). Storing raw potatoes in the fridge may lead to the formation of more free sugars in the potatoes (a process sometimes referred to as ‘cold sweetening’) and can increase overall acrylamide levels especially if the potatoes are then fried, roasted or baked. Raw potatoes should ideally be stored in a dark, cool place at temperatures above 6°C.

Eat a varied and balanced diet

While we can’t completely avoid risks like acrylamide in food, eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes basing meals on starchy carbohydrates and getting your 5 A Day will help reduce your risk of cancer.

The science behind acrylamide

How acrylamide is formed

During high temperature cooking, a process called the Maillard reaction occurs. The naturally present water, sugar and amino acids combine to create a food's characteristic flavour, texture, colour and smell. This process can also produce acrylamide.

The duration and temperature of cooking determines the amount of acrylamide produced: long durations and higher temperatures form more acrylamide than short durations and lower temperatures.

Acrylamide risk assessment

In 2002, Swedish studies revealed that high levels of acrylamide formed during the frying or baking of potato and cereal products. This raised worldwide public concern because studies in laboratory animals suggested acrylamide had the potential to cause cancer in humans. Subsequent assessment by organisations including the World Health Organisation, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and UK scientific advisory committees also suggests that acrylamide is a human carcinogen which has the potential to cause cancer by interacting with the genetic material (DNA) in cells. Most recently, in 2015, the EFSA published its first full risk assessment of acrylamide in food , which confirms that acrylamide levels found in food potentially increases the risk of cancer for all age groups. This means that acrylamide might contribute to your lifetime risk of developing cancer; although it is not possible to estimate how big this contribution may be.

What industry is doing to reduce acrylamide

The food industry has undertaken a lot of work to identify and implement measures to reduce acrylamide levels 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.

The British Hospitality Association and other stakeholders are also working with the FSA to develop an easy-to-follow best practice guide that can be used by food business operators (FBO) in the catering and food service sectors. This will help to identify and implement measures to reduce acrylamide levels in food they cook.

FSA's work on acrylamide

The FSA has been working to understand more about acrylamide, reduce the risk that it presents and provide advice to both industry and consumers. We are doing this through:

  • Supporting food manufacturers’ initiatives to reduce acrylamide in retail foods.
  • Conducting and publishing annual monitoring data for acrylamide in a range of retail products.
  • Undertaking a broad programme of research such as the recent study on how consumer behaviours affect acrylamide from home cooking to inform any actions taken, and advice the FSA provides and to inform the debate on next steps for acrylamide reduction.
  • Encouraging industry-led projects to develop new varieties of crops such as wheat or potatoes that will form less acrylamide when cooked.
  • Producing a new UK Total Diet Study on acrylamide in food.
  • Taking a lead in discussions in Europe on how best to support acrylamide reduction and increase consumer safety via a practical regulatory approach.