Acrylamide and Food: a shocking revelation

Not that long ago in a ‘What’s on your mind’ Facebook post I recalled how as a boy many years ago in Toronto I happily walked several blocks along Queen Street West every Friday evening to get classic, always delicious, take-out fish and chips for our family dinner. I also remembered the best French fries ever were to be found at the nearby Sunnyside amusement park, now long gone to make way for the Gardiner Expressway.

Since then, it’s fair to say I’ve consumed a lot of restaurant fries over the years with burgers, toasted, three-decker, club sandwiches, as well as home-fried potatoes, in restaurant and home.

Feel free to check that box yourself, figuratively speaking, if the same holds true.

And then there’s the long-standing pleasure in more recent years, of baking my own bread – lately, a light rye specialty – and pizza crust, squash pies, and experimental, ‘necessity’ (Whatever ingredients are handy) muffins, so long as maple syrup is the key ingredient.

Have I ever left the bread in the oven too long, so the crust is thick and dark, and enjoyed it anyway with homemade soup? Yep, been there, done that.

So, to say the least, I was shocked to discover recently I may have been putting my health seriously at risk all that time by eating a lot of fried (deep-fried especially) and oven-baked food like bread and roast potatoes; and many other things store-bought, like potato chips, crackers and cookies. The list, as it turns out now, is very long.

It’s about acrylamide, also called, acrylic amide, an organic compound widely used, and government regulated, in industry for a wide variety of products and purposes, including water treatment.

However, it has only been since 2002 when, first in Sweden, concerns were raised about acrylamide’s presence in food processed or cooked at temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Celsius (248 Fahrenheit).

Since then, public health agencies in the European Union, the U.S. and Canada have been in the forefront of efforts to learn more about the risk to human health. The U.N and the World Health Organization are also involved. Studies involving mice and rats being given high levels of acrylamide, have shown it causes cancerous tumors. That has led to it being officially described a “probable” cause of cancer for humans; but more human-based studies are needed to be certain, the various health agencies stress

Meanwhile, in an abundance of caution, they have offered advice, suggesting people stop eating deep-fried potatoes, turn down the temperature where possible and not bake or toast bread beyond ‘golden brown,’ instead of dark brown; and definitely don’t eat burnt baking products, from store or home. Potato chips are among the foods with highest levels of acrylamide, and, shockingly, many baby foods listed in Health Canada’s monitoring.

A fresh batch of ‘golden’ buns, temp. 375 F instead of 400

Even coffee is suspect, because of the roasting of coffee beans: light or medium is better than dark, or give coffee up entirely. Oh, no, not my morning coffee! That’s a tough one.

Health Canada’s summary, Acrylamide and Food, is one of the best and most readable documents on the issue I came across online. The same agency’s Revised Exposure Assessment of Acrylamide in Food’ and, the long list (Appendix 1) of branded, food products gathered and tested for acrylamide levels is important and revealing for people to know. (If there are problems with the links, google ‘Health Canada Acrylamide and Food,’ and ‘Health Canada, Revised Exposure Assessment of Acrylamide in Food.’) My only criticism of the latter is there needs to be more explanation of the PPB numbers, and symbols and how they pertain to the daily, body-weight impact of acrylamide.

The other comment I have is to what extent this important information about food and public health has reached, well, the public. I follow the daily news closely, I thought, and I’m sure there are Canadians and others around the world who are aware of the concerns about acrylamide in food; but I only found about it accidentally, while researching potatoes for other reasons, and the article I was reading happened to mention it.

There’s lots of troubling news ongoing that gets covered like a blanket: the political situation in the U.S., for one, and the war in Ukraine; but surely the possibility so many of the foods we – billions of us – routinely eat or drink every day may contain a compound that causes cancer, is as important as anything.

Finally, there appears to have been a relative lack of updated information in recent years since the initial flurry after 2002. For example, Canada Health’s Revised Exposure Assessment dates from 2012. Many of its related articles on the topic are already archived. Hopefully, that doesn’t reflect a lack of a sense of urgency.

Sometimes I wonder about the toxicity of the world we live in, the food we eat, the way it’s grown and processed, and what strikes me – yes, anecdotally – as the cancerous result when so many people I know, or know of, are getting sick.

The Herb Rosemary added to your bread dough will lower the level of acrylamide substantially’