Coffee is a household essential. A whopping 64% of American adults drink a cup every day. If you’re one of them, that morning brew is an automatic, subconscious routine. The same goes for grilling season. As soon as the weather warms up, those burgers and hot dogs are ready to go. You wouldn’t think twice about such novel traditions…unless, of course, you’ve heard about acrylamide.
Acrylamide is a compound that happens to lurk in some of America’s favorites, like coffee and grilled foods. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy what you love. However, it’s always important to know what exactly is in your food. Take some time to learn more about acrylamide and how it’s formed. You’ll be happy to discover there are ways to reduce exposure to acrylamide without sacrificing your sanity – or your summer.
What is acrylamide?
Acrylamide is a chemical compound used in the production of paper, dye and other industrial products. It is also formed when cooking certain foods at high temperatures, particularly for prolonged periods of time. This occurs due to what’s called the Maillard reaction, when sugars (glucose, fructose) bond with amino acids. It’s the same process that makes people wonder “are air fryers healthy?” (Spoiler alert: air fryers are safe.)
Truth be told, many chemicals are formed during the Maillard reaction; acrylamide is only one of them. More specifically, acrylamide is produced when sugars react with the free amino acid asparagine. Acrylamide is most common in plant-based foods, including potatoes, grain products and coffee. If acrylamide forms in dairy, meat or fish products, it’s at very low levels.
The health effects of acrylamide
Acrylamide was first detected in foods in April of 2002, at which point the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began performing toxicology research, exposure assessments and guidance on reducing acrylamide in foods. Unfortunately, studies have yielded inconclusive results regarding the association of acrylamide and certain health conditions.
For one, research on humans is limited due to the ethical issue of purposefully exposing people to a potential toxin. And while observational studies in humans have shown an increased risk for certain types of cancer (kidney, ovarian and endometrial), that data comes with limitations. Observational studies make it hard to control for other influential variables, such as cigarette smoking, which is also known to increase acrylamide concentrations in the body.
The only well-documented effects of acrylamide on human health are those related to occupational exposure. People working in certain industries – like paper or dye manufacturing – are at a greater risk of peripheral neuropathy, which can cause weakness, numbness and pain in the hands and feet.
That being said, the FDA has declared “high levels of acrylamide caused cancer in laboratory animals.” Nominated by the FDA, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) conducted animal research on acrylamide and its oxidized metabolite, glycidamide. The two-year studies found tumors in the mammary and thyroid glands of female rats and in the reproductive organs of the male rats. Additionally, tumors in the lungs of mice were also observed. This multisite effect is clear evidence of carcinogenic activity.
A separate study of male mice published in March 2018 concluded that acrylamide and glycidamide caused damage to the liver. The two compounds demonstrated oxidative damage, immune injury and carcinogenic gene expression.
There may not be enough research to demonstrate direct cause and effect on humans. But one scientific review from 2017 argues, “Numerous research proved that AA [acrylamide] and GA [glycidamide] have significant influence on physiological functions including signal propagation in peripheral nerves, enzymatic and hormonal regulation, functions of muscles, reproduction etc.”
Essentially, acrylamide damages and mutates DNA and generates high amounts of free radicals, the unstable compounds that lead to a host of health problems – from chronic inflammation to expedited cellular death.
How to reduce acrylamide exposure
Just because the toxin exists in the food supply does not mean you need to give up your favorite grilled recipes or morning cup of coffee. But do find ways to limit your exposure to acrylamide as best as you can. Here are a few helpful tips:
Watch the clock – Forgo the 24-hour pork roast or other prolonged cooking methods that require high heat. Make sure you’re following standard food safety protocols and food is cooked to the proper internal temperature; but then let it rest. Most meats will continue cooking after you’ve pulled them off the fire.
Soak your spuds – Cooked potatoes are one of the main sources of acrylamide. However, soaking spuds for 15-30 minutes prior to frying or roasting can significantly reduce acrylamide formation.
Say hello to yellow – When you are cooking potatoes, go for a golden yellow color, instead of a golden brown. The same applies to your morning toast. Adjust your toaster to the lightest setting possible.
Fry low – Since acrylamide forms at high temperatures, frying foods at 338 degrees Fahrenheit or lower can help minimize production.
Try no-fry – Steaming or boiling foods is always a healthy option. These alternative methods do not increase acrylamide concentration.
It’s impossible to completely avoid exposure to toxins and chemicals. They are in the environment every minute of every day. However, the FDA has taken some action to help curtail consumers’ exposure to acrylamide. In March of 2016, they released an industry guidance for growers, manufacturers and foodservice operators to reduce acrylamide levels in certain foods. While there are currently no mandatory limits, companies have felt pressure to make changes. In 2008, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods Inc. and Lance Inc. all agreed to pay millions of dollars in fines and reduce acrylamide in their products over the course of three years.
As a consumer, continue to take action, as well. Limit your exposure to toxins like acrylamide, among others, by shopping organic, following the tips above and remaining calm. Remember, there are several health benefits of coffee that outweigh the presence of acrylamide. And if grilling vegetables is the easiest way to get your family to eat more of the good stuff, by all means keep grilling!