Exonerated? Foods’ acrylamide risks appear low

A new Swedish analysis downplays the likelihood that people will develop cancer from eating foods naturally tainted with acrylamide, a building block of many plastics and an animal carcinogen.

Acrylamide made headlines last year when researchers reported that the compound routinely forms during high-temperature cooking, such as frying and baking, especially of potatoes, breads, and other starchy foods (SN: 8/24/02, p. 120: Cooking Up a Carcinogen). Four separate chemistry studies linked the creation of acrylamide to common flavor-enhancing reactions between certain amino acids and sugars (SN: 10/5/02, p. 213: Hot Spuds: Golden path to acrylamide in food).

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have now reanalyzed data from three other studies—ones involving patients with cancers in the large bowel, kidney, and bladder. When acrylamide has been consumed as part of the diet, “the areas where you’d first expect to see any [cancer] risk would be in these organs,” notes study leader Lorelei A. Mucci, who holds a joint appointment at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Using detailed dietary histories collected from almost 1,000 cancer patients in Sweden and more than 500 age-matched Swedes without cancer, the researchers calculated the likely dietary intake of acrylamide for each participant. In the Jan. 13 British Journal of Cancer, Mucci’s team reports finding no “excess risk, or any convincing trend, of cancer” among even those people who were heavy consumers of crisp breads, pan-fried potatoes, and other foods that typically show high acrylamide concentrations. “I don’t think that the doses are going to be different in the United States,” Mucci notes, despite different food preferences.

The acrylamide typically found in the human diet appears to be “effectively detoxified,” the researchers conclude. However, because acrylamide exposure by inhalation and injection has caused neurological impairments and has been linked to various cancers in animals, Mucci cautions that “more research needs to be done.”

Responses to the new study have been mixed. “We are cautiously optimistic about these findings,” says Jeff Nedelman, spokesman for the Snack Foods Association in Alexandria, Va.

However, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., charges that estimates of exposure were based on data from too few foods and that the study size was probably too small “to find or disprove a link between acrylamide and cancer.” As such, he finds the study by Mucci’s team “no reassurance whatsoever that acrylamide is safe for humans.”


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Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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