23 January 2017

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has recently launched a campaign to raise awareness about acrylamide and provide tips on how to reduce our intakes.

Acrylamide is a chemical that is created when many 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.

Which foods contribute acrylamide to the diet?

Amongst the products contributing to acrylamide intake in the diet are potatoes and bread, which can be increased when heating to high temperatures – so the browner your chips are or the darker the toast, the more acrylamide is formed. Therefore, cooking choices can have an impact on the levels of acrylamide we are exposed to.

How to reduce the acrylamide content of foods:

  • Check the cooking instructions on pack and follow carefully
  • Cook foods to light rather than dark colour
  • Serve toast to the lightest acceptable colour
  • Fry foods at lower temperatures
  • Blanch potatoes before frying them
  • Avoid overheating oils and fats
  • Don’t store potatoes in the fridge
  • Avoid bruised potatoes.

But how much of a concern is it?

Acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic in laboratory animals and in 1994 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it as a probable human carcinogen. Acrylamide is considered a genotoxic carcinogen because of its potential to damage DNA (the genetic material in cells) and cause cancer.

In terms of human studies, evidence of increased risk of developing cancer in association with dietary exposure to acrylamide is limited and inconsistent, and it is far less clear what the risks are from acrylamide in food.

However, there is some concern, based on the animal evidence, that exposure to acrylamide may be a potential cancer risk to humans and both the FSA in the UK and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have looked at this as a food safety issue.

As a precautionary approach, the FSA believes that exposure should be kept as low as reasonably practical. It has launched a public awareness campaign Go for Gold, which aims to help consumers reduce their exposure to acrylamide when cooking at home.

EFSA in its risk assessment of acrylamide in food concluded that, based on animal evidence, there is a potential health concern of dietary exposure to acrylamide, particularly for young children with high dietary exposure. EFSA has recommended some extended monitoring and surveillance of dietary acrylamide.

What is important to remember is that this is pragmatic advice on how to cook starchy foods. On the basis of safety, no government agency has advised its population to stop eating starchy foods. It is important to remember that eating a varied, balanced diet will help to reduce your risk of cancer. Starchy foods form an important part of government healthy eating guidelines for a balanced diet and there is no need to stop eating these foods. For example, wholegrain starchy foods are a key source of fibre in the UK diet and there is robust evidence that higher intakes of fibre reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

There is also good scientific evidence that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, reducing alcohol intake and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of certain cancers.

For more information on acrylamide, visit the Food Standards Agency website.