Official Concern: U.N. weighs in on acrylamide toxicity

In fried, grilled, and baked foods, the formation of acrylamide–a carcinogen and nerve poison in rodents–constitutes “a serious problem,” according to a United Nations panel. However, it’s too early to tell whether concentrations typically found in Western diets cause cancer in people, the panel’s new report adds.

Meeting at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva last week, 23 food-science and cancer specialists reviewed the sparse data that have emerged on the presence of acrylamide in food and its potential impact on health. Last April, Swedish scientists reported finding acrylamide in a wide variety of starchy foods that had been fried, grilled, or baked–from french fries to breakfast cereals (SN: 5/4/02, p. 277: Cancer Link Cooks Up Doubt: Heating may form potential carcinogen in food). The highest concentrations have appeared in fried foods.

Jrgen Schlundt, WHO’s coordinator of food-safety research, says that acrylamide probably has about the same potency as heterocyclic amines (SN: 11/28/98, p. 341: http://www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc98/11_28_98/Fob3.htm), compounds that can develop in meats grilled at high temperatures and that cause cancer in animal tests. The big difference, comments toxicologist Michael W. Pariza of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is that acrylamide concentrations in affected foods tend to be 10 to 1,000 times as high as heterocyclic amine concentrations.

Schlundt says that current best estimates put human-adult intake of acrylamide at about 70 micrograms per day, less than a hundredth of the amount needed to damage nerves in a rodent. However, the panel’s review uncovered “a lot of holes in our knowledge that we need to fill very quickly,” he adds. Toward that end, he says that WHO is forming an international network of researchers in government, universities, and the food industry to share new findings about acrylamide in food.

That’s a good idea, says Jim McCarthy, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Snack Foods Association. Up to 90 percent of the U.S. food supply may bear traces of acrylamide, he says, “so, this is not just a french fry or potato chip story.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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