Eating Charred Foods With Acrylamide Increases Cancer Risk: What You Should Know

Acrylamide
Eating burned foods can increase your risk for cancer. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Swedish researchers stumbled upon a potential cancer-causing agent in food known as acrylamide back in 2002. While an abundance of animal studies have highlighted acrylamide’s carcinogenic properties, human studies have been sorely lacking. A report issued by the European Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) this past Thursday has found that consuming acrylamide — a chemical that develops on starchy foods when they are cooked at high temperatures — can increase a person’s risk for cancer.

“The public consultation helped us to fine-tune the scientific opinion,” Dr. Diane Benford, the chair of the CONTAM Panel, said in a statement. “In particular, we have further clarified our evaluation of studies on the effects of acrylamide in humans and our description of the main food sources of acrylamide for consumers. Also, recent studies that we became aware of during the public consultation phase have been integrated into the final scientific opinion.”

The EFSA drew attention to animal studies showing that acrylamide and its metabolite glycidamide are gentoxic and carcinogenic agents that result in DNA damage and cancer development. After acrylamide is ingested, it gets absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, is distributed to all organs, and, finally, metabolized. The metabolite resulting from this process, glycidamide, is often associated with gene mutations and tumor growth.

Potato chips, coffee, biscuits, crackers, crisp bread, and soft bread (prepared via frying, baking, roasting, and industrial processing, at temperatures around 250 degrees Fahrenheit) are considered the most common food groups contributing to acrylamide exposure. Sugars and amino acids, most notably asparagine, that are naturally found in certain foods are what produces acrylamide. The chemical process resulting in acrylamide, dubbed the Maillard Reaction, is the same process that “browns” food and impacts its taste.

According to the American Cancer Society, acrylamide can also be used in industrial processes, like the production of paper, dyes, and plastics. Along with cigarette smoke, acrylamide can be found in caulk, food packaging, and certain adhesives. The Food and Drug Administration issued similar draft guidelines back in November 2013 explaining the potential cancer risk associated with acrylamide. Acrylamide was also the reasoning behind the decision by McDonald’s to abandon longtime business partner J.R. Simplot.

Acrylamide is not found in boiled food; however, researchers have found high concentration of it in breakfast cereal and black olives. In addition to bowel, bladder, and kidney cancer, researchers also warn against the harmful effect it can have on the nervous system, pre- and post-natal development, and male fertility. Higher cooking temperatures and longer cooking times can increase the amount of acrylamide in your food. 

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