Acrylamide formation in cooked foods --Nature Science Update

Charles Miller rellim at tulane.edu
Mon Oct 14 16:37:38 EST 2002

Food acrylamide mystery solved
Frying and baking explain potential carcinogen in crisps
and bread. 
1 October 2002 , Nature Science Update


The Maillard reaction accounts for acrylamide
in crisps.

Acrylamide, a compound that causes cancer symptoms in animals, is formed
during frying and baking, two studies now show.

The discovery solves a mystery that had caused public alarm. In April a
Swedish study found the chemical in crisps and biscuits, but not raw food,
at levels higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends for
drinking water1. 

"I haven't known as much interest in a topic in many years," says Don
Mottram, who studies food chemistry at the University of Reading, UK. Not
knowing where the chemical was coming from was "a very big problem", he

Baked bread tastes better than raw dough, and fried chips are tastier than
boiled, because of the Maillard reaction. As long as there's sugar around,
high temperature breaks proteins down to give food more flavour and a golden
brown colour. 

The Maillard reaction also produces acrylamide, Mottram has found, as has
Richard Stadler of the Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, in
independent experiments2,3. Potatoes and some cereals contain large amounts
of the amino acid asparagine, which is similar to acrylamide. In the lab,
heating asparagine with sugar at 185 ºC turns much of it into acrylamide,
Motram and Stadler have found.

"During cooking, many complex chemical reactions take place," says Stadler:
other amino acids change their form repeatedly, also producing acrylamide.
More tests are needed on different types of food to see how acrylamide
forms, he says, and to understand the effects of different cooking

Exposing more of a food to higher temperatures, as in thin potato crisps,
generates more acrylamide. So too does cooking food for longer. No
acrylamide has been found so far in boiled foods, probably because of their
lower cooking temperature.

In rats and fruitflies, acrylamide causes cancerous changes, at
concentrations 1,000 times higher than those found an average diet. There is
no direct evidence for acrylamide having a similar impact on humans, but the
International Agency for Research on Cancer nevertheless classified it as
"probably carcinogenic" in 19944.

Rats don't eat heated food. But as humans have been doing so for thousands
of years, we may be more tolerant to acrylamide, Mottram suggests. Obesity,
diabetes and a lack of fruit and vegetables in Western diets are more
serious health threats than acrylamide, he adds.

Finding the mechanism at work is important, but still just "one of many
missing points", says Jorgen Schleudt, head of WHO's food-safety programme.
He is calling for more research into the effects of acrylamide on humans.

Indeed, next week the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and
WHO are launching a web-based network to coordinate acrylamide research. It
should encourage a "global exchange of information", Schleudt explains.


1.    Tornquist, M. et al. Acrylamide: A cooking carcinogen?. Chemical
Research in Toxicology, 13, 517 - 522, (2002). |Homepage|
2.    Mottram, D.S., Bronislaw, L.W. & Dodson, A.T. Acrylamide is formed in
the Maillard reaction. Nature, 419, 448 - 449, (2002). |Article|
3.    Stadler, R.H. et al. Acrylamide from Maillard reaction products.
Nature, 419, 449, (2002). |Article|
4.    IARCAcrylamide. Monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to
humans, 60, 389, (1994). |Article|

© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2002


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