FAQs on acrylamide in food

1. What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a chemical that naturally forms in starchy food products during everyday high-temperature cooking. It is likely that acrylamide has been present in food since cooking began. It mainly forms from sugars and amino acids (mainly one 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 and affects its taste. Acrylamide also has widespread industrial non-food uses and is present in tobacco smoke.

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

Typically, this means cooking at temperatures above 120°C with low moisture, including frying, baking and roasting, and also processing by industry. While this applies to commercial food preparation, including catering and food manufacturing, EFSA’s 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?

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

For most children, fried potato products account for up to half of all dietary exposure to acrylamide with soft bread, breakfast cereals, 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 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 is one of the main metabolites from this process, and 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 on male reproduction. These effects were not considered to be a concern, based on current levels of dietary exposure.

7. How can acrylamide levels in food be reduced?

Although not the focus of its risk assessment, EFSA’s 2015 scientific opinion includes an overview of data and literature summarising how the choice of ingredients, the storage method and the temperature at which food is cooked can influence the amount of acrylamide in different food types and, therefore, the level of dietary exposure.

There follows a summary of this review, however, it is important to note that EFSA has not evaluated the validity of these findings. (N.B. µg or mg/kg = micrograms or milligrams per kilogram)

Choice of ingredients:

  • Coffee substitutes made from chicory generally contained on average six times more acrylamide (3mg/kg) than cereal-based coffee substitutes (0.5mg/kg)
  • Fried products made from potato dough (including crisps and snacks) generally contained 20% less acrylamide (338µg/kg) than those made from fresh potato (392µg/kg)
  • Potatoes grown in sulphur-deficient soil usually accumulate less asparagine, reducing acrylamide formation during heating

Storage method

  • Storage of potatoes at below 8°C generally increases sugar levels in potatoes, potentially leading to higher acrylamide levels following cooking
  • Soaking potato slices in water or citric acid solution can reduce acrylamide levels in crisps by up to 40% or 75%, respectively.

Processing (temperature and duration)

  • Lighter coffee roasts generally contained more acrylamide than medium and dark roasts (which are roasted for longer), potentially increasing average exposure by 14%
  • Tests by industry and consumer organisations indicate hot-air fryers generally produce 30-40% more acrylamide than conventional deep oil fryers
  • Temperature generally increases acrylamide levels in French fries more than cooking time; frying above 175°C can lead to greatly increased levels.

Home cooking

  • Consumer preferences for crispy and brown French fries and other fried potato products may increase average dietary exposure by 64% (for high consumers, by 80%)
  • Toasting bread for five minutes instead of three minutes can increase the acrylamide content from 31µg/kg up to 118µg/kg, depending on the bread type and temperature of the toaster. Consumption of well-toasted bread, however, only increases overall average dietary exposure by 2.4%.

8. 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 for the consumer aims at more selective home cooking habits and more variety in the diet.

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.

9. 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 24 European 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. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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 opinion on acrylamide in food.

In April 2013, EFSA launched a call to food business operators and other stakeholders to submit additional occurrence 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 discussed this feedback together with the contributors to the online public consultation at a public meeting held December 2014. This process helped EFSA’s experts to fine-tune their scientific opinion and integrate recent studies (up to March 2015) into the final scientific opinion.

 

Last updated: 13 October 2014

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