FAQs on acrylamide in food

1. What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a chemical. In 2002, researchers in Sweden discovered that acrylamide naturally forms in starchy food products during everyday high-temperature cooking. It is likely that acrylamide has always been present in food. It forms from sugars and an amino acid (called asparagine) that are naturally present in many foods. The chemical reaction that causes this is known as the Maillard Reaction. This is the same chemical reaction that ‘browns’ food making it tastier. Acrylamide also has widespread industrial uses.

2. What is meant by ‘high-temperature cooking’?

Typically, this means cooking at temperatures above 150°C, including frying, baking and roasting, and also processing by industry. While this applies to commercial food preparation, including catering and food manufacturing, EFSA’s draft opinion states clearly that home-cooking choices can have a substantial impact on the level of acrylamide humans are exposed to through the diet.

3. Which foods contain acrylamide?

Coffee and fried potato products (including French fries, croquettes and roasted potatoes) are the most important dietary source of acrylamide for adults, followed by biscuits, crackers and crisp breads, and soft bread.

For most children, fried potato products account for up to half of all dietary exposure to acrylamide with soft bread, biscuits, crackers and crisp breads amongst the other contributors.

Baby food (mainly rusks and biscuits) is the most important source for infants.

Some other food categories such as potato crisps and snacks contain relatively high levels of acrylamide but their overall contribution to dietary exposure is more limited (based on a normal/varied diet).

4. Are consumers at risk of developing cancer from acrylamide in food?

Currently, studies on human subjects have provided limited and inconsistent evidence of increased risk of developing cancer. However, studies on laboratory animals have shown that exposure to acrylamide through the diet greatly increased the likelihood of developing gene mutations and tumours in various organs.

Based on these animal studies, EFSA’s experts agree with previous evaluations that acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups. While this applies to all consumers, on a body weight basis, children are the most exposed age group.

5. What happens to acrylamide in the body?

Acrylamide consumed orally is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, distributed to all organs and extensively metabolised. Glycidamide, one of the main metabolites from this process, is the most likely cause of the gene mutations and tumours seen in animals.

6. Are there other health risks besides cancer?

EFSA’s experts have considered possible harmful effects of acrylamide on the nervous system, pre- and post-natal development and male reproduction. These effects were not considered to be a concern, based on current levels of dietary exposure.

7. What can consumers do to reduce the risk from acrylamide in food?

First and foremost, consumers should look for the latest recommendations provided by their national food safety authorities as they tailor food safety advice to national eating habits and culinary traditions.
Generally, since it is practically impossible to eliminate acrylamide entirely from the diet, most public advice to consumers aims at more selective home cooking habits and variety in the diet.

Studies show that the choice of ingredients and the temperature at which food is cooked influences the amount of acrylamide in different food types. Since acrylamide levels are directly related to the browning of these foods, some countries recommend to consumers: “Don’t burn it, lightly brown it”. Varying cooking practices and finding a better balance, e.g. boiling, steaming, sautéing as well as frying or roasting, could also help reduce overall consumer exposure.

A balanced diet generally reduces the risk of exposure to potential food risks. Balancing the diet with a wider variety of foods, e.g. meat, fish, vegetables, fruit as well as the starchy foods that can contain acrylamide, could help consumers to reduce their acrylamide intake.

8. Can the food industry help?

One European food industry organisation (FoodDrinkEurope, also a member of EFSA’s Stakeholder Consultative Platform), in close co-operation with the national authorities and the European Commission, developed a “toolbox” to highlight ways to lower levels of acrylamide in manufactured food. Short extracts of the toolbox have been developed in the form of sector specific brochures. These brochures are designed to help food business operators to implement those items of the "toolbox" that are relevant for their sector. These brochures are available in 22 European Union languages.

9. Are public authorities doing anything to reduce the risk?

European and national decision-makers will use EFSA’s scientific advice, once finalised, as well as other considerations in weighing up any possible measures to further reduce consumer exposure to this substance in food. These may include, for example, additional advice or specific campaigns to consumers on eating habits and home-cooking, or controls on commercial food production; however, EFSA has no direct role in deciding such measures.

Currently, EU Member States monitor acrylamide levels in food and submit data to EFSA. The European Commission recommends that Member States carry out investigations in cases where the levels of acrylamide in food exceed so-called ‘indicative values’ set by the Commission as a guide.

10. What is EFSA’s role?

EFSA’s role is to carry out scientific risk assessments and give scientific advice on potential risks in the food chain. In the area of contaminants in food, this work is carried out by independent scientific experts belonging to EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM Panel). The Authority also collects data on the levels of contaminants in food and supports the coordination of data collection and monitoring by Member States.

The scientific advice, data and technical assistance provided by EFSA supports risk managers in making informed choices about regulating and controlling the food chain.

11. Does EFSA make food safety policies or regulate food manufacturing?

No. EFSA has no direct role in deciding European or national measures aimed at reducing consumer exposure to acrylamide. These tasks are the responsibility of risk managers in the European Commission, European Parliament and Member States.

12. How open has EFSA been in developing this draft?

Openness and transparency are key values for EFSA; the Authority has sought to involve Member States, the scientific community, civil society organisations and other stakeholders at various stages throughout the development of its draft opinion on acrylamide in food.

In April 2013, EFSA launched a call to food business operators and other stakeholders to submit additional data on acrylamide levels in foods and beverages collected from 2010 onwards. The Authority also consulted consumer organisations, NGOs and the food industry through its Stakeholder Consultative Platform to find out about ongoing and recent research related to acrylamide in food.

From 1 July to 15 September 2014, EFSA held an online public consultation on its draft scientific opinion to allow scientists, national authorities, stakeholders and other interested parties to comment on the approach, information used and draft conclusions of EFSA’s draft scientific opinion. Before finalising the opinion, EFSA’s scientific experts will discuss this feedback together with the contributors to the online public consultation at a public meeting later in 2014.

EFSA’s work will also continue to take account of related national and international developments, including work by national authorities in EU Member States and by the United Nations Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

Last updated: 18 September 2014

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