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Understanding acrylamide

Earlier this week there were stories in the press that the UK Food Standards Agency is warning that overcooked starchy foods can contain acrylamide, a chemical liked to cancer.

Risks during high temperature cooking

Recent concern over the presence of acrylamide in food dates from 2002. Scientists reported that up to “mg/kg” quantities of acrylamide could be formed in carbohydrate-rich foods during high-temperature cooking, e.g. during frying, baking, roasting, toasting and grilling. 

Acrylamide (or acrylic amide) is a chemical compound with the chemical formula C3H5NO. It is mainly formed in food by the reaction of asparagine (an amino acid) with reducing sugars (particularly glucose and fructose) as part of the Maillard Reaction (a complex series of reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars, usually at increased temperatures).

Since the 2002 discovery, major international efforts have been mounted to investigate the principal sources of dietary exposure, to assess the associated health risks and develop risk management strategies.

Codex code of practice

In 2009 the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius developed a “Code of Practice for the Reduction of Acrylamide in Foods” (CAC/RCP 67-2009) which intends to provide national and local authorities, manufacturers and other relevant bodies with guidance to prevent and reduce formation of acrylamide in potato products and cereal products.

How to reduce acrylamide?

  • Decrease the surface area; for example in French fries, by cutting potatoes into thicker slices.
  • Washing, blanching or par-boiling treatments can be employed to leach the asparagine/reducing sugar reactants from the surface of the potato before the cooking step.
  • Yeast fermentation of wheat bread doughs reduces the free asparagine content.
  • Where relevant, industry should endeavor to provide advice to consumers on appropriate cooking and handling instructions that can help to mitigate acrylamide formation in the product.

FAO Senior Food Safety Officer Markus Lipp explained the sources, the causes, and the risk from acrylamide and how FAO and WHO expert committees assess compounds in order to provide the best, most robust scientific advice available to Codex committees.

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