In 2002, a group of scientists from Sweden published results of a shocking study. They proved that some foods contain harmful acrylamide. Do you like to eat dark crispy bread crust and potato crisps? If so, try to cut down on them. It turns out that acrylamide which they contain may contribute to the development of tumor.
What is acrylamide?
Acrylamide is a chemical compound used e.g. in plastic and dye manufacturing as well as wastewater treatment. It is also present in tobacco smoke and in drinking water.
Is acrylamide harmful?
Yes, it is. Acrylamide may damage our nervous system and our DNA.
What’s more, it can cause tumor of e.g. the digestive tract, kidneys, reproductive organs, lungs and the brain. Based on scientific research it is classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).
Harmful acrylamide cross the placenta barrier to the fetus and to mother’s milk. Therefore, pregnant and breastfeeding women should limit the consumption of products containing acrylamide. It’s metabolite – glicydamide – is also toxic for us.
It has been also proven that children aged 1 to 6 have a higher level of acrylamide in the blood than adults. This is because kids consume quite a lot of products that contain the chemical in question. Let’s also bear in mind that the same amount of acrylamide is more harmful for a 20-kg child than to an adult.
So how come that acrylamide is found in food?
Both frying and baking processes are responsible for harmful acrylamide being present in our food. A bit of chemistry for those more interested in that matter. There is the so-called Maillard reaction taking place in these cooking processes. It is a reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars. In other words: proteins react with carbohydrates. The reaction is the fastest in the conditions of 120 – 180 °C.
As a result of this reaction, food turns brown. Another effect is that it starts tasting like the baked or fried dishes so many of us enjoy.
What food contains the biggest amount of harmful acrylamide?
Baked and fried starchy (carbohydrate-rich) food contains the greatest amounts of acrylamide. Such food includes dishes based on vegetables like e.g. potatoes or beetroots as well as those that contain a lot of flour. It is not found in fresh and boiled/steamed foods.
We can find harmful acrylamide in e.g. bread, breakfast cereal, cookies and gingerbread. It also appears when we fry our food in coating. Other popular sources of harmful acrylamide include pancakes, and dishes based on fried and baked potatoes. Crisps and fries contain the biggest amount of acrylamide. There’s also quite much of it in coffee (unfortunately!!!) and coffee substitutes like e.g. chicory.
FoodDrinkEurope has issued a document with guidelines on how to reduce the content of acrylamide in our food. These guidelines are mainly solutions for the catering and food industry. Some of them we can easily apply in our home cooking.
What can we do to reduce the content of harmful acrylamide in our diet?
- Frying should be very short if the frying temperature is high, or long if the frying temperature is lower. Much more fat gets into the food in the latter case, though
- It is best to bake cakes or bread using yeast or baking soda. Yeast quickly absorbs the components that form acrylamide
- When baking food containing starch, especially bread, cover it to make the crust lighter. Crust is actually where we will come across the biggest amount of acrylamide. That’s why it is better to avoid burnt toasts and dark bread. I bake for example everything in a glass bakeware with a lid, but some pots will work well too. Make sure that it’s not aluminium foil. Why? I wrote about it here
- Instead of breakfast cereal or crispy bread, it’s more reasonable to have porridge or millet groats for breakfast. Unlike sugar-rich cereal, they will make you feel satiated and give you a healthy portion of good energy for the whole day. Especially if you have them with frozen jam
- Roasted nuts are delicious, but they are too subject to the Mailliard reaction. They are often found in various types of muesli. It’s much healthier to eat fresh nuts with porridge oats
- Fries and crisps contain most acrylamide. It is actually possible to limit the harmfulness of fries to some extent by making them at home using fresh potatoes. Once you cut the potatoes into fries, you should blanch them in hot water before frying or baking. This way we get rid of the compounds acrylamide is formed of. In addition to that, we should cut the potatoes thicker and fry/bake them until they start turning gold – not brown
- There’s probably nothing you can do about crisps, though. The problem is that they’re thin and crunchy, which means they are an excellent environment for acrylamide to appear
- And what about coffee??? Roasting coffee beans reduces the level of acrylamide. Darker roasting may bring its content down to even 70%. It looks like there’s least of it in an espresso. There’s much more acrylamide in drip brewed coffee. Unfortunately coffee substitutes contains the biggest amount of harmful acrylamide
Is there anyone to protect us from acrylamide?
The matter is so serious that the European Commission has voted through a motion to reduce the content of acrylamide in food products. Moreover, food manufacturers have been obligated to monitor the content of acrylamide in their products.
See what EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, has to say about the issue.
FoodDrinkEurope deals with the safety of food and beverages in Europe. The organization offers food manufacturers suggestions on how to modify their manufacturing methods, such as e.g. selecting the right varieties of potatoes.
The packaging of potatoes in one of the biggest supermarkets in Switzerland bears the following warning notice: “Gentle heating during frying and baking prevents unwanted acrylamide from forming”. It seems that the problem is real and quite serious.
Let’s also bear in mind that the harmfulness of acrylamide grows with the consumed amount. A healthy and varied diet is the most important. It will help us not only enjoy good health but also get rid of toxins from our body. Of course, there’s no need for us to overact and give up everything. But it’s good to know what we eat.
Although acrylamide has been there like forever I’m not sure if our diet has ever been dominated to such an extent by acrylamide-rich products. I can give up cookies and fries but it would be a real challenge for me to quit coffee. So, I don’t intend to do it, for now. Maybe just cut down on it a bit 🙂
I’m off to meet my friend and chat over a cup of coffee!
Keep It Simple