Harvard Health Letter

In brief: Acrylamide: No longer such a hot potato

Remember acrylamide? Its 15 minutes of fame occurred in 2002, when Swedish researchers and food regulators reported that fried and baked goods — French fries and potato chips especially — contained large amounts of the chemical. Subsequent analyses by researchers in other countries, including the United States, confirmed what the Swedes had found and then some: acrylamide was found in breads, cereals, cookies, crackers, coffee, and cocoa. By some reckonings, over a third of the calories we get each day come from foods that contain the chemical.

Although new to most of us, acrylamide (pronounced a-KRIL-a-mide) was a known entity before the headlines. It had a long history of being used in several manufacturing processes and as a "clarifier" in water treatment because it traps suspended solids and takes them out of solution. Its health-effects dossier included cases of neurological damage from large, on-the-job exposures, but the bigger worry, by far, was that it might cause cancer. Based on the results of animal studies that involved feeding rats large quantities, the International Agency for Research on Cancer had classified it as a probable carcinogen.

Health scares often flit across our radar screens, only to disappear, but acrylamide was alarming, partly because it wasn't, in the usual sense, a contaminant. It's the natural byproduct of reactions between certain amino acids (primarily asparagine) and certain sugars when food is cooked at temperatures of 248˚ F and above. For many of us, the really bad news is that most of it forms in the final stages of cooking as a food's moisture content falls and its surface temperature increases — in other words, right when things get brown and crispy and delicious.

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