Reducing your acrylamide intake

by Jennifer Bowden / 20 December, 2012
That lovely brown colour on your oven chips and breakfast toast may be doing you harm.
Reducing your acrylamide intake

Acrylamide levels in potato crisps have decreased by two-thirds in the past five years, thanks to manufacturers’ efforts. But even with this substantial industry improvement, the bad news is New Zealanders haven’t reduced their overall acrylamide intake during the same period, according to a 2011 survey by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI). So, what is acrylamide? And is it bad for our health?

When foods are baked, fried and toasted at high temperatures, a desirable chemical reaction occurs, producing an attractive brown colour and enhanced flavour. Unfortunately, acrylamide, a chemical compound, also forms naturally when plant-based high-carbohydrate, low-protein foods are fried, toasted or baked at higher temperatures.

Acrylamide is more commonly known as an industrial chemical and for its presence in tobacco smoke. At very high levels, it can damage the nervous system in animals and humans. It is also classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Since 2002, when Swedish researchers first discovered acrylamide in high-carbohydrate foods cooked at high temperatures, the international scientific community has tried to learn more about its effects on health. Some research suggests the low levels found in food aren’t a worry, but other studies have raised alarm.

A recent study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, reported that pregnant women who had higher intakes of dietary acrylamide were more likely to give birth to lower-weight babies with a smaller head circumference.

The European Prospective Mother-Child study also found consumption of certain foods, such as fried potatoes, was associated with higher levels of acrylamide in umbilical-cord blood. If these findings are verified, women may need to take steps to reduce their acrylamide intake to protect their unborn child’s long-term health.

Acrylamide levels vary depending on the food type, cooking temperature and cooking time. The most common sources are hot potato chips, potato crisps, coffee, toast, bread, rolls, sweet plain biscuits and wheat-biscuit-style breakfast cereals.

The Ministry of Primary Industries regularly monitors levels of acrylamide in our food. Its 2011 survey assessed major dietary contributors, such as potato products (crisps, hot chips and roasted potatoes), cereal-based foods (fresh and toasted bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, muffins, fried rice/noodles and cereal-based snack foods) and nut products (peanut butter, roasted peanuts and cashews). Although levels in potato crisps were significantly lower than in 2006, our overall intake has remained the same, as acrylamide levels in potatoes, hot chips and oven-baked/roasted potatoes appear to have increased in the same period.

We may not be able to eliminate acrylamide formation when food is cooked at high temperatures, but steps can be taken to reduce it. Food regulators such as the MPI in New Zealand and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) in Australia are working with industry to reduce acrylamide levels. Food manufacturers, for example, are being encouraged to lower cooking temperatures, use enzymes that reduce acrylamide formation and/or source raw materials with lower levels of the compounds that form acrylamide within the food.

Research is helping this process. For example, a recent British study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, investigated the different levels of acrylamide formed when nine potato varieties were processed into french fries after varying lengths of storage time.

At home, reduce your acrylamide intake by following these FSANZ tips:

  • Always follow the manufacturer’s cooking instructions – many have adjusted them as a way to reduce acrylamide formation.

  • Cook potato chips to a light golden colour, and use maximum temperatures of 175°C when deep-frying and 230°C when baking.

  • Don’t store potatoes at temperatures below 8°C, as this increases acrylamide formation.

  • Wash or soak vegetables for several minutes before frying, as this reduces the components that form acrylamide.

  • Toast bread and other foods to the lightest colour acceptable to your taste (the crust will have higher levels of acrylamide).

Email:, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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