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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

Safety of acrylamide in food and products

Acrylamide is a chemical compound found in food, cigarettes and household products. It’s also used in many industrial processes. Though acrylamide is considered a likely carcinogen by the agencies that categorize cancer-causing substances, the exact nature of the link (if any) between acrylamide and cancer in humans is still being studied.

The two major sources of acrylamide exposure to humans are food and tobacco smoke. More rarely, workers may be exposed to acrylamide in industrial settings, where it’s known to be toxic to the nervous system. People exposed to large amounts of acrylamide may experience symptoms such as muscle weakness, numbness in their hands and feet, the feeling of unsteadiness or clumsiness, and sweating.

In food, acrylamide forms as a natural by-product of cooking certain items at a high temperature. It isn’t an additive or ingredient found on a label.

Acrylamide develops from sugars and an amino acid called asparagine during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, roasting or baking. It’s most likely to be found in food or drinks made from plants—such as grains, potatoes or coffee—rather than dairy, meat or fish. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cites these food sources as having the highest levels of acrylamide:

  • French fries
  • Potato chips
  • Bread
  • Crackers
  • Cookies
  • Canned black olives
  • Prune juice
  • Coffee

Acrylamide forms in coffee in the process of roasting beans, not when it’s brewed.

Cigarettes are another common source of exposure to acrylamide. People who smoke have three to five times more acrylamide in their bodies than those who don’t smoke.

In industry, acrylamide is used in the manufacturing of many items, including paper, dyes, plastics and pulp, as well as for oil drilling and wastewater treatment. It may also be found in some household objects such as food packaging, adhesives and caulk.

Scientists continue working to get a full picture of where acrylamide exposure may be found. It wasn’t until 2002 that scientists discovered that foods contain acrylamide. Since then, the FDA has been monitoring the amount of acrylamide in popular food items.

The link between acrylamide and cancer isn’t totally clear. Acrylamide is “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program. In the world of deciding what is or isn’t considered a carcinogen, that’s different than calling something a “known” carcinogen—like arsenic, for example. Still, it does warrant enough caution that agencies have committed themselves to studying and regulating acrylamide.

Studies have shown that acrylamide does cause cancer in laboratory animals. However, these animals (rats and mice) were exposed to levels far higher than what people are usually exposed to in food, and while animal studies provide useful information, human and animal bodies are different.

Public health research on humans and acrylamide is less conclusive. More research is needed to understand the exact nature of the link (if any) that exists between acrylamide and cancer in humans, including long-term studies that compare levels of acrylamide and diet in a large and dedicated sample of people. It’s also crucial for researchers to better understand how acrylamide forms during cooking and test more foods for acrylamide levels.

The FDA doesn’t recommend you completely avoid foods that may contain acrylamide. Still, if you choose to, the FDA has outlined ways to lower the amount of acrylamide in your diet, including these tips:

  • Avoid or cut back on coffee.
  • When cooking potatoes, consider boiling or cooking them in the microwave, rather than frying, roasting or baking them in the oven.
  • Soak raw potato slices in water for 15-30 minutes before frying or roasting. (Drain and blot them first to keep them from splattering or causing fires.)
  • Don’t store potatoes in the refrigerator.
  • Cook roasted or fried potatoes (like frozen french fries) until they are golden yellow rather than brown. In general, more acrylamide accumulates as food cooks for longer.
  • Toast bread to a light brown color, rather than a dark brown color.

Avoiding cigarette smoke may also lower the exposure to acrylamide.

Regulation of acrylamide levels

The FDA doesn’t regulate the amount of acrylamide in food. It has, however, monitored acrylamide in popular foods over the past couple of decades—and it found that acrylamide levels have been reduced in recent years. The FDA has developed guidance to help food and beverage industry growers, manufacturers and operators lower the amount of acrylamide in their products.

Laws within different states and countries vary. California’s Proposition 65 law requires that companies warn consumers and workers about carcinogens, including acrylamide. The European Union has also begun regulating acrylamide in foods sold within its member states.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates how much acrylamide levels are safe in drinking water. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provides guidance for employers and workers in industries where exposure to acrylamide may pose a risk.