Acrylamide: How safe are your products for consumers?

By Stellar Frisby on 01 April 2022

Although recognized in various industries where its effects on people are known, such as the tobacco industry, the presence of acrylamide in food was only discovered in 2002 when a group of Swedish researchers working on acrylamide exposure in working environments concluded that cooked food was a major source of acrylamide exposure.

Acrylamide is formed during the process of cooking carbohydrate-rich foods at temperatures that exceed 120 degrees celsius. When sugars such as glucose and amino acids such as asparagine react, acrylamide is formed. This reaction is known as the Maillard reaction or the “browning reaction” and thus, as a rule of thumb, the darker the food, the more acrylamide has been formed. Due to the fact that no acrylamide is present naturally in carbohydrate-rich ingredients, it is regarded as a processing contaminant that is formed during frying, toasting, roasting and baking.

Once acrylamide is absorbed into the body it is metabolised and forms glycidamide, which is considered to be carcinogenic and genotoxic. Simply put, this means that any level of exposure may potentially damage a person’s DNA and may increase the risk of cancer. In 1994, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified acrylamide as a substance probably carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.

In 2006, the Codex Alimentarius Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) / Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), released an opinion on the risk posed by exposure to acrylamide in the diet, stating that morphological changes in nerves of individuals exposed to high levels of acrylamide could not be excluded. In 2009, Codex Alimentarius released a Code of Practice for the Reduction of Acrylamide in Foods with the aim of assisting food manufacturers in preventing and reducing the formation of acrylamide.

In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared acrylamide a genotoxic and carcinogenic substance and concluded that no amount of the substance was safe to consume. As outlined in the 2015 ESFA opinion, consumers of all age groups were at an increased risk of developing cancer due to consumption of acrylamide, but children being of most concern due to exposure in relation to their body weight. The opinion also outlined that ingredients, processing and storage conditions could lead to a great increase in formation of acrylamide in food.

The most important outcome of both opinions was that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that acrylamide from the diet caused negative effects in the reproductive and neurological systems in people as well as negative development effects. Both opinions did however conclude that there was a concern for the development of tumours at the average level of exposure.

Data collected in Europe since 2003 shows that the foodstuffs with the highest acrylamide levels are vegetable crisps, chicory-based coffee substitutes, coffee and potato chips respectively. Other acrylamide-producing products include French fries, biscuits and breakfast cereals. It is important to remember that although some products contain more acrylamide than others, it is the amount of any particular food consumed that determines the exposure.

What has the food industry done to reduce the levels of acrylamide in food products?

Once acrylamide has been formed during cooking, it cannot be reversed so must be controlled.  For this reason, FoodDrinkEurope (a European food industry confederation) working with ESFA, developed an “Acrylamide Toolbox” for manufacturers with the aim of suggesting methods of reducing acrylamide production to levels that are “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” without affecting the acceptability and safety of food products. Such methods include ingredient selection and storage, recipe design and process design for foods such as French fries, potato crisps, breakfast cereals, bread, biscuits, crackers and crispbread, as well as foods for infants and young children.

In 2018, Commission Regulation (EU) 2017/2158 (regarding acrylamide risk management) came into force in the European Union and in the same year, the European Snacks Association (ESA) reported a 54% reduction in acrylamide levels compared to 2002.

With modern problems come modern solutions and currently, research and development in the field of genetics and agriculture is leading the way in the reduction of the precursors of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich agricultural products such as potatoes and wheat.

While the onus of reducing acrylamide content lies with the food producer, the consumer also has a role to play in this regard, and consumer education is key.

This includes teaching consumers to cook food until golden (not blackened); to use cooking methods that do not produce acrylamide, such as boiling and steaming; to keep the quantity of ‘adult’ snacks young children eat to a minimum – especially potato-based products and strive for a balanced diet.

Taking precautions means that it is not necessary for consumers to avoid eating their favourite snacks, provided they are mindful of what and how much they consume, as well as how it has been prepared. As Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, reminds us - the dose makes the poison. 

For more information and a list of references, please contact the writer at Hahn & Hahn at