Acrylamide in foods

Update on acrylamide in foodstuffs

Acrylamide is a substance which forms in certain foods high in asparagine (an amino acid) or in starch, when cooked at high temperatures. This compound is recognised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a proven carcinogen in animals and as possibly carcinogenic for humans. Since 2002, ANSES has made several assessments of the risks linked to acrylamide and contributes to expanding knowledge on the French population’s exposure to it through food. It has petitioned EFSA in order to consolidate information on acrylamide, its toxicity and the means of reducing consumer exposure to it. 

In 1994, acrylamide was recognised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a proven carcinogen in animals and as possibly carcinogenic for humans. At the time, this compound was known as a hazard when combined with cigarette smoke, and for workers who handle it. In this context, ANSES produced occupational exposure limit values for acrylamide. In 2002, it was also found that acrylamide forms in starch-rich and asparagine-rich foods when cooked at temperatures higher than 120°C. Acrylamide falls into the category of newly-formed products – products which are not found in the initial food but which are formed during its preparation.

In this context, the Agency received a formal request in 2002 for an opinion on the health risks associated with the presence of newly-formed acrylamide during the processing and cooking of foodstuffs. Many research projects have been undertaken on this topic, around the world and in particular at ANSES’s Fougères laboratory.

The Agency's work

After publishing two documents on the subject in 2002 and 2003, the Agency issued a new update of knowledge in May 2005 on the toxicity and bioavailability of newly-formed acrylamide after ingestion in food and its impact on animal cells. In this work, the Agency also assessed the exposure of the French population to acrylamide based on products consumed in France. For most of these products, the acrylamide concentrations were measured by ANSES’s Maisons-Alfort Laboratory for Food Safety.

In June 2011 ANSES reassessed the exposure of the French population to acrylamide based on the second total diet study (TDS2). This corresponded to a decrease of 14% for adults and 45% for children in comparison with the French exposure estimates made in 2005.

The exposure of the French population is approximately 2 to 4 times lower than the levels estimated by the FAO/WHO for 17 countries.

The TDS data revealed that the levels of exposure of the French population are still too close to the doses recognised as carcinogenic in animals(1). Therefore, exposure to acrylamide through food remains a public health concern and initiatives aiming to reduce exposure should be pursued.

European focus on the issue

Since 2007, the European Commission has set up plans for monitoring acrylamide levels in foodstuffs. Each year, inspections are held in the Member States and their results are summarised by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). Between 2007 and 2010, little variation in acrylamide levels was observed. In 2011, the European Commission established limit values for foods found to contribute greatly to acrylamide formation. If these values are surpassed, the manufacturers producing the incriminated food must analyse their production process, determine the moment at which acrylamide is formed, and find a solution for lowering the levels. To do this, a list of possible actions (in the field, during storage, during processing, etc.) has been established by manufacturers.

The system set up by the European Commission, as well as the recommendations it has issued for limiting exposure to acrylamide through food, are still very new. It is therefore difficult at this time to evaluate their impact.

In addition, the French, Danish, German and Swedish health agencies/institutes have decided, in light of the new scientific data available, to petition EFSA for an update of risk assessments linked to acrylamide ingestion through food.

Which foods contribute most to acrylamide exposure?

The biggest contributors to acrylamide exposure remain fried potatoes and chips. Coffee, and in particular black coffee, is the second biggest contributor to acrylamide exposure in adults, whereas sweet biscuits are the largest contributor in children.

A few simple steps can be takes to reduce consumer exposure to acrylamide:

  • avoid overheating frying and cooking oil;
  • avoid browning foods excessively;
  • avoid eating the most highly browned parts of foods, as they contain the highest levels of acrylamide.

ANSES recommends eating a varied and balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables and containing only a moderate amount of fatty or fried foods.

(1) While the animal doses are 100 to 721 times lower, a genotoxic carcinogenic compound is generally not considered to be a public health concern if this difference is more than 10,000.