Acrylamide: The consumer health scare that isn’t

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Consumers love to get their teeth into a good health scare. So how is it that acrylamide has slipped under the radar?

Acrylamide is a suspected carcinogen that occurs in a whole host of commonly consumed foods including French fries, potato chips, cookies, breakfast cereals, roast potatoes, bakery products and coffee. Last week it was added to Canada’s list of toxic substances, the US Food and Drug Administration requested comments to form the basis of industry guidance, and the EU proposed that the chemical be included on its list of Substances of Very High Concern.

That’s right, all in one week – but I would guess that you’re still enjoying your breakfast cereal and your morning cup of coffee. No worries then.

Acrylamide is formed during the cooking of starchy foods at high temperatures by a process called the Maillard reaction, in which sugar reacts with an amino acid called asparagine to give baked and fried foods their brown color and tasty flavor. But despite a huge amount of attention from global regulatory bodies, consumer research released last week found “virtually no awareness”​ of acrylamide among US consumers.

So what’s going on?

In fact, the alarm was raised in 2002 when Swedish scientists found unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich foods and published evidence linking it to cancer in lab rats. Since then, research has poured into the area and industry has rallied to find ways to slash the chemical from foods.

This reaction at least partly explains why acrylamide has hardly been touched by the mainstream press. Scientists found a problem, they and the food industry rushed to find solutions, and industry has made strides toward slashing acrylamide levels. There’s not much of a story in that.

Acrylamide has​ hit the headlines a couple of times over the past few years, but consumer concern seems to have fizzled once big industry has taken a pummeling. California’s attorney general raised a lawsuit against several French fry manufacturers in 2005, accusing them of not providing warning labels detailing acrylamide content on their products. The warning label idea was dropped in 2006, but the case was only settled two years later, when Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance agreed to reduce the suspected carcinogen in their fried potatoes and paid penalties and costs.

Of course, there are other factors that could explain why the compound itself has not been scrupulously demonized: It is a natural by-product of the cooking process, rather than an easily targeted additive; and a predilection for well-done toast or crispy skinned baked potatoes leads to unwitting Maillard reactions in domestic kitchens too. This is not a problem for the food industry alone.

But the industry’s handling of acrylamide concerns has been exemplary and food manufacturers should learn from it. There has been little complacency and, as a result, there is now a clutch of solutions available and manufacturers are using them.

What a contrast to so many of the other health scares that get picked up by the global press. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter whether there is a solid foundation for consumer concern. Take monosodium glutamate (MSG). Unlike acrylamide, health concerns about the ingredient have been repeatedly debunked and no governmental body has ever warned consumers to avoid it. And yet it is still on many people’s list of no-go ingredients.

At a time when consumers are savvier than ever before about what might be ‘hidden’ in their foods, food and ingredient makers need to make sure that nothing is hidden, and they are vigilant about their products’ safety. If question marks do emerge, they too need to be dealt with transparently.

Take acrylamide as an example – if industry takes health concerns into its own hands, consumers don’t have to.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef. If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas 'at'

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