March 19, 2012
In April of 2002, the results of a study were reported by the Swedish National Food Administration which discovered that starchy foods that had been fried or baked at high temperatures, above 120° C (248°F), produced acrylamide, a human neurotoxicant and chemical known to cause cancer in animals (EHP). French fries and potato chips were found to contain higher levels of acrylamide. Acrylamide is a chemical in cigarette smoke, and is used primarily in making polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers for industrial processes, such as manufacturing plastics and in the treatment of drinking water, wastewater, and sewage.
Small amounts of acrylamide are also found in consumer products, including cosmetics, food packaging, and some adhesives (NCI). Acrylamide in food is formed during the Maillard reaction, which is the chemical process that browns food during cooking. Sugars, including glucose, fructose, and lactose (EHP), react with Asparagine, an amino acid that is found in many vegetables, with higher concentrations in certain varieties of potatoes. Longer cooking times at high-temperature have been found to produce acrylamide, but boiling and microwaving appear to not produce the chemical (NCI). According to University of Southern California professor and nutrition expert Roger Clemens, black olives, breakfast cereals, coffee, and other foods have some acrylamide and “our foods have contained this compound since man started cooking with fire.” (WMD)
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other health and scientific organizations continue to study acrylamide in food and its effect on health, they have not advised consumers to stop eating contaminated foods. According to the FDA, eating a balanced diet of foods high in dietary fiber, like fruits, beans, vegetables, and whole grains, and choosing foods low in sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol promote overall good health. The U.S. National Toxicology Program offers the following tips for reducing acrylamide exposure: 1) Fry foods at 338 degrees Fahrenheit or lower; 2) Cook potato strips, such as French fries, to a golden yellow rather than a golden brown color; 3) Toast bread to the lightest color acceptable; 4) Soak raw potato slices in water for 15 to 30 minutes before frying or roasting. Drain and blot dry before cooking; 5) Do not store raw potatoes in the refrigerator.
More specific dietary advice or federal regulation of specific food products may be implemented in the future based on further research (OEHHA), but the FDA has opposed warning labels, pending its own review of the matter. Fried potatoes are a big business throughout the U.S., with Americans spending an estimated $4 billion a year on fries and $3 billion a year on potato chips. The food industry does not want “cancer” on its products and argue that scientists do not know for certain that acrylamide is carcinogenic to humans at the levels present in food. Acrylamide is also not put into food, but is formed when starchy food is heated at high temperatures.
In 2005, under Proposition 65, approved in 1986 by California voters requiring the state to regulate chemicals that are known to cause cancer or reproductive harm and to force manufacturers to label their products or otherwise warn consumers, California’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, filed suit against McDonald’s; Burger King; Frito-Lay, owned by PepsiCo; KFC, a division of Yum Brands; Wendy’s International; Lance, which makes Cape Cod potato chips; H. J. Heinz, which produces Ore-Ida frozen potato products; the potato chip company Kettle Foods; and Procter & Gamble, which sells Pringles. The lawsuits alleged that they had failed to warn consumers about the dangers of acrylamide found in food, accused the industry of concealing the facts, and demanded them to put labels on all fries and potato chips sold in California, stating: “This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.” (NYT) In 2007, a number of fast-food chains agreed to post acrylamide warnings in their restaurants in California and pay civil penalties and costs.
By August 2008, the lawsuits brought by the Attorney General were settled out of court. The CAG again decided to sue a number of snack food producers in 2009 for acrylamide exposure, and in 2010 the California Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment announced plans to list acrylamide as a reproductive toxin based on findings by the National Toxicology Program’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (OLL). Debate, both scientific and non-scientific, over the dangers of acrylamide in food continue, but some action is necessary in the absence of regulatory decisions by the FDA. Over a dozen acrylamide animal studies show both cancer and birth defects, and the chemical has been regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen for over 20 years. The California attorney general and several activist groups believe that consumers should be given notification so they can make informed food choices (NYT).
Marc Chua and Kaylee Yang are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.