The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has released a set of non-binding guidance notes on the subject of acrylamide in food (2016)1. This concise 37-page document summarizes current research, and leads with advice to food industry producers and food service industry workers on how to minimize human exposure through reducing levels of acrylamide in food.
Acrylamide is a low molecular weight compound that is highly soluble in water. As a contaminant in food, acrylamide forms during the Maillard Reaction when amino acids such as asparagine reacts with sugars under the high temperature/low moisture level conditions seen in processing workflows such as baking [reviewed here on Examining Food]. Producers often exploit this phenomenon to affect flavor and appearance, especially in starchy foods such as bread and potato fries. Acrylamide is found in coffee as well as cigarette smoke; however the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) identifies potato fried products as the most significant source for human exposure in a 321-page Scientific Opinion published in 20152.
Once ingested, acrylamide is absorbed through the gastrointestinal system and distributes among body organs where it metabolizes into a number of active compounds. Although there are no specific toxicology studies in humans, both the FDA and EFSA have advised the food industry to take steps that minimize consumer exposure to the chemical. This is because of studies in laboratory animals that indicate strongly that acrylamide is neurotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic.
The EFSA Scientific Opinion collates and reviews existing studies on the potential hazard that acrylamide poses to human health, drawing from laboratory studies that document development of cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive and hormonal disorders.
The report notes that although absolute levels in certain foodstuffs such as coffee are high, human exposure is lower due to dose dilution. However, EFSA does point out that infants, toddlers and children in general form the population group that is exposed to dietary acrylamide the most. With extrapolation from animal toxicology studies, there are estimated dose limits for human exposure but these are not definite. Food safety agencies globally advise caution and further research in this area as a potential health concern.
The IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and the United States National Toxicology Program thus class acrylamide as a “reasonably anticipated human carcinogen”. For this reason, food producers are encouraged to minimize risk to consumers through reducing acrylamide content in foodstuffs.
The FDA guidance document contains a handy summary of approaches producers and food service staff can take to reduce the amount of acrylamide generated during processing and food preparation. Broken down according to foodstuff, the document reviews current research before supplying a handy bullet point list of practical steps that the food industry can take.
For example, selecting potato species with low reducing sugar content and choosing only mature tubers both reduce overall acrylamide content in finished products. Slicing larger fries to reduce the reactive surface-area-to-volume ratio, avoiding sugar dips and pre-treating with acidulants decreases acrylamide formation. Peeling potatoes then cutting them in thinner slices before baking reduces acrylamide in chip manufacture.
Producers should also choose appropriate species as starting materials for cereal-based foods. In this case, selecting species for high asparagine levels makes sense since high concentrations overwhelm the limited reducing sugar content in these crops. When creating the final product, substituting leavening agents, replacing ammonium bicarbonate and omitting fructose from the list of ingredients all reduce acrylamide concentrations in cereal-based food. Paying close attention to baking at lower temperatures also limits Maillard Reaction activity.
The FDA guidelines also include advice for food service industry training, suggesting that workers understand more about baking conditions, aiming for golden brown, rather than charring food to reduce acrylamide exposure.
1. Guidance for Industry: Acrylamide in Foods (March 2016) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition