Safety of acrylamide in food and products

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Carolyn Lammersfeld, MBA, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Vice President of Integrative Care Services

This page was reviewed on January 29, 2022.

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 grains, potatoes or coffee heated to high temperatures. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cites these food sources as having the highest levels of acrylamide when heated to high temperatures:

  • 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 may acrylamide. Since then, the FDA has been monitoring the amount of acrylamide in popular food items.

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.

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