Cancer From Acrylamide In Food That’s Burnt, Grilled, Fried
[toc]Food is a favorite part of traveling for many. For us, it’s the part we hate.
Why? Because whether it’s plant-based, gluten free, nut free, macrobiotic, or simply 100% organic food, no other city we’ve been to – neither domestically nor abroad – offers as many good restaurants which cater to these health-conscious categories as our hometown of Los Angeles. Yet almost all of those fabulous restaurants ignore the elephant in the room… acrylamide and other Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs).
They will proudly tout their $20 appetizer-sized entrée of chicken – raised free range without antibiotics or added hormones – and then sear it above an open flame. “Look how perfect those grill marks are” the waiter will exclaim.
Though, the vegan restaurants are arguably the worst offenders.
Organic or not, the restaurants selling more traditional cuisine are casting their net for a wider audience. They’re not as concerned about health, let alone specialized diets. Vegan restaurants are and given their specialized focus – with all the hoops they jump through – one would think they would be extra cognizant of health-related issues.
Especially since – contrary to what many believe – health is the single most-cited reason people go vegan (1). The hardcore animal rights and paramilitary PETA protestors are the exception, not the norm.
However at so many vegan restaurants, your choices are limited if you are looking for ways of how to avoid acrylamide in food. Much of it is charred. Burnt crusts and bread are the norm, even when requested otherwise. Likewise for roasted/fried potatoes and gluten free muffins at Sunday brunch. All delicious, but not always healthy.
What is acrylamide?
You don’t need a PhD in biochemistry to understand why acrylamide is considered potentially dangerous and harmful to your health.
Is acrylamide in raw foods? Mostly not. It’s primarily formed when some types of food are cooked at high temperatures – at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit and above.
Certain cooking methods in particular have been proven to dramatically increase the production of acrylamide because they create focused areas of ultra-high heat on the food. These include grilling, frying, and broiling. It can also be formed at lower temperatures – even below 212 degrees Fahrenheit – under drying conditions (2). That can make baking problematic too, since it can be both drying and high heat.
Think about it… when you throw a slab of meat or veggie burger on the grill, the actual metal surface reaches much higher temperatures than the inside of your steak or hamburger patty. That’s why on the outside of the meat, you get those charred black grill marks – which ironically – many people find highly desirable.
Why is it bad for you?
We could go into gobbledygook-filled, long-winded scientific explanation of why this chemical formula, C3H5NO, poses a significant health risk to most life forms, humans included. We could cite a bajillion studies and white papers.
But instead, let’s just explain it in layman’s terms.
You often hear headlines of how acrylamide causes cancer (3), is a neurotoxin (4), and so forth. Though the warnings often fail to provide a simple explanation of why that is. Articles will blabber on and on, without ever providing a dumbed-down elevator pitch of why.
The reason why – which anyone can understand – can really be summed up in a just a few sentences.
Acrylamide will bind to your DNA to form what is called an adduct. An adduct is a segment of your DNA which is chemically bonded to a cancer-causing chemical.
In other words, this chemical interrupts the natural metabolic process of your DNA. That can be a problem if in doing so, it causes the DNA to mutate.
DNA mutations are never good, but not all cause cancer. In fact, you have them daily and your body does a very good job at repairing them. Fewer than 1 out of 1,000 mutations are permanent, the rest are discarded by the body (5).
Even when our body misses them and they become permanent, the effects will most likely never be detected – or at least – the mutations may contribute to aging, but not cancer, according to the mutation theories of aging (6).
However once in a while, a DNA mutation can go out of control, replicating itself exponentially into a mass of other mutated cells before our body stops it. That’s what we call cancer.
So when a type of DNA adduct (a type of chemical that binds to your DNA) has been shown to trigger mutations which lead to cancer, we call those cancer-causing chemicals or carcinogens.
A few examples of known DNA adducts which we encounter in our lives:
1,3-butadiene – Considered “by far the most significant cancer risk” in tobacco smoke (7).
Ultraviolet Light – Not just the sun, but indoors too from Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) and halogen bulbs (8).
Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) – A common flame retardant which unfortunately is way overused, as it is added to plastics to reduce their flammability. This also means you will find it in many appliances, textiles, foam products, and even mattresses (9).
Cisplatin – A chemotherapy drug. This is a good DNA adduct. Rather than causing cancer, it mutates the cancerous DNA strands to cross-link and ultimately self-destruct (10).
So what type of DNA adduct is acrylamide… one that’s only suspected because of animal studies? Or one that has been proven as causing cancer in humans?
Answering this question for any suspected DNA adduct is never simple. It takes many decades of research and extensive long term studies.
You could be diagnosed with cancer today, stemming from a DNA mutation that happened 10 or 15 years ago, if not longer. For example, how long it takes for breast cancer to be detected after formation is estimated to be 6 to 8 years, before it can even be felt or seen on a mammogram (11).
The very slow nature of cancer growth is what makes proving their cause so difficult, for any suspected carcinogens.
It’s the reason why the tobacco industries could skate by scot-free for the latter half of last century, because they could argue the conclusive proof wasn’t quite there.
And you could argue that mindset is no different than the people today who say acrylamide causing cancer is a myth… not because it’s proven false, but rather because they say there isn’t enough proof.
As evidence continued piling up about tobacco, the industry still got by with the rebuttal that it might be bad, but smoking in moderation is okay and perfectly safe. It’s the exact same rebuttal many are giving today about food containing acrylamide and other suspected AGEs such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (12).
Your French fries, burnt bread, toast, fried chicken, and extra-crunchy cereal pose no problem whatsoever, because it’s only a little bit, it’s in moderation. And having a little bit of something bad is actually healthy for you, or so the logic goes.
To further complicate matters, acrylamide is not some obscure chemical used in industrial applications (though it is used there too, including in the wastewater recycling process). Rather, we’re talking about a substance which affects even more people than cigarettes. Even at its heyday, the mid 1950’s, only 45% of Americans smoked (13). But 100% of Americans eat food!
As such, the political pressure to not classify acrylamide as a carcinogen is huge. If it was classified as such, can you imagine the field day for lawyers looking to cash in on class action lawsuits against food companies and restaurant chains?! It would make the cigarette companies look like small potatoes (burnt potatoes, pun intended).
Simply put, the special interests and lobbying efforts are a mighty obstacle unlikely to be challenged, until the evidence is so overwhelming it can no longer be ignored. Given that it wasn’t until the 00’s that food sources of acrylamide garnered any attention, that means it may be another couple decades away until we have that undeniable proof. At least, if you’re comparing it to the several decade timeframe it took for linking tobacco to cancer, from the time of initial evidence to undeniable overwhelming proof.
Meanwhile – likely for a long while – we expect the current U.S government’s classification of acrylamide to remain the same.
Uncle Sam is too big of a sissy to issue any kind of acrylamide restriction or real warning for it in food. Instead, the Department of Labor’s OSHA deems it a “a potential occupational carcinogen.” So they have strict rules about protecting people in the workplace from inhaling it or allowing their skin to come in contact with it – i.e. during industrial practices – yet they remain silent on eating it!
Ok let’s get this right. Breathing a little in or having any contact with skin? Major OSHA violation! Eating it and ingesting it at home or a restaurant? No problem at all!
And to be even more contradictory, OSHA lists the following health factors for acrylamide on their website (14):
Potential Symptoms: Ataxia, tremor; numb limbs, paresthesia; decreased reflexes; speech disturbances; drowsiness, fatigue, lethargy; memory loss; weakness; weight loss; eye, skin irritation; red or blue discoloration, peeling and sloughing of skin in the hands.
NIOSH Immediately Dangerous To Life or Health Concentration (IDLH): 60 mg/m3
That “dangerous to life” answer of 60 mg/m3 then links out to a page on CDC.gov which displays the following table of acrylamide toxicity levels and lethal doses for various animals (15):
Hashimoto et al. 1981
McCollister et al. 1964
McCollister et al. 1964
Paulet and Vidal 1975
Okay so let’s sum up the government’s official position:
In workplace = dangerous and suspected carcinogen
Ingested by animals = lethal and not at that high of amounts, either.
Ingested by humans in food = no problem at all!
As if that’s not wish-washy enough, the FDA still issues guidance on how to reduce acrylamide in food (if it’s officially not dangerous or harmful, why the need to reduce?!). Though in their defense, we admit their latest guidance issued is actually pretty good advice!
Obviously you can see the utter ridiculousness of the U.S. government’s position on this chemical. For that reason, because we are based in the United States, we can’t say conclusively acrylamide in food is dangerous. Does acrylamide cause cancer? Does eating burnt food cause cancer? To be clear, for legal reasons, our answer is no, in food it doesn’t.
Of course, as with anything in life, we also encourage you to think for yourself. And if you want to learn how to avoid acrylamide in food, that’s completely within your right to do so (we’ll give you tips on how in a minute).
At least outside of the United States, a more transparent position is taken on this chemical.
Headquartered in France, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization. Yes the U.S. is a member of IARC, but our influence within it is offset by the 24 other members: Germany, Japan, France, Spain, United Kingdom, Belgium, Brazil, South Korea, Qatar, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, India, Switzerland, Ireland, Morocco, Norway, the Netherlands, Australia, Austria, Italy, Turkey, and Denmark.
The IARC classifies acrylamide as Group 2A carcinogen (16). That designation officially means “limited evidence in humans and sufficient evidence in animals.” It’s the highest classification something can have without being a 100% confirmed carcinogen in humans. They have been clear that acrylamides in food poses “a major concern.”
Even ignoring the big bad “C” word, AGEs are also suggested as causing or promoting a whole slew of other nasty diseases such as atherosclerosis, kidney disease (17), strokes (18), cardiovascular (19), and Alzheimer’s disease (20). So the suspected side effects of Advanced Glycation End Products possibly extend much further than “just” cancer.
How to minimize acrylamide in food
To simply present you a list of foods with acrylamide would be ineffective, since it is practically found in almost everything.
Not even plain water is necessarily free of it, since water purification is one of the most prevalent industrial uses of this chemical (21). It’s also found in moderate levels in foods you may not expect, such as instant coffee, ripe pitted olives, and Gerber Tender Harvest Organic Sweet Potatoes (22).
So you can’t eliminate it entirely, though you can greatly reduce your consumption by limiting your intake of foods that are high in acrylamide or changing how you cook them.
You’ve already heard some of the cooking methods more likely to produce it:
With baking it’s primarily at high temperatures and/or when the food is dry.
Though it’s really more important to understand what causes it to form with those types of cooking.
Asparagine is a non-essential amino acid – it’s a building block of protein. When it reaches high temperatures (such as during the aforementioned cooking methods) it can produce acrylamide.
Asparagine takes its name from asparagus… not because it’s the highest food source, but rather that was the source (asparagus juice) used for isolating it from in 1806. Three years later it was given its name (23). It was the first amino acid ever isolated from its natural source.
The foods highest in asparagine have the potential to be the worst offenders. It’s not that you need to cut them out of your diet entirely, but rather take careful consideration in how they are prepared, as to minimize the formation. Potatoes are case in point. You may have heard browning and deep fried potatoes are cancerous, however you don’t have to make them that way. Potato chips on the other hand, there’s no way around that train wreck.
Good rule to remember: higher amount of carbohydrates = higher potential for acrylamide.
It’s not just as simple as creating a list of high asparagine foods because how much or how little acrylamide formation there is depends largely on cooking/production methods. A food could have a lot of asparagine, yet little acrylamide because it was consumed in its raw form.
Acrylamide formation does tend to be significantly higher in carbohydrates, which come from plants. Very little is in meat and dairy. Unfortunately though, this doesn’t mean omnivores have less to worry about. Acrylamide is just one type of Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs).
From the testing of 549 different foods, “based on standard serving sizes, the meat group contained the highest levels of AGEs” (24). So meat contains less acrylamide (if prepared properly) but more of other carcinogenic AGEs such polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and N-nitroso compounds (nitrosamines).
Quoting directly: “In contrast, carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking.” So cooked plant-based foods will expose you to the specific AGE that’s acrylamide, but much less for the other carcinogenic AGEs (we’ll save the others for a different article).
Assuming the most typical food prep methods for each, some of the highest dietary sources of acrylamide are (22):
• Cooked beans, particularly when baked or roasted to a dry state (e.g. coffee beans, roasted cocoa, bean tortilla chips).
• Roasted nuts and seeds.
• Meats which are grilled, barbequed, fried, breaded (e.g. fried chicken). The more charred or crispy, the higher amounts of AGEs (primarily HCAs and PAHs).
• Fried and cooked potatoes, particularly French fries, potato chips, and hash browns (boiled/steamed whole potatoes are dramatically less).
• Any vegetable which is battered and fried (e.g. onion rings, tempura).
• Veggie straws/chips.
• All grains are susceptible if cooked improperly – wheat, rice, quinoa, corn, oats, you name it. This mostly applies to prepared dry goods, such as toasted cold and hot cereals, granola, bars, and crackers. Boiling and steaming from scratch or raw/sprouted is ideal.
• Heavily toasted products such as biscotti, crackers, pretzels.
• Toasted bagels and breads.
• Overbaked breads, tortillas.
• Cakes, pastries, cookies, and pie crusts.
You may be thankful beer is missing from the grains list. But before you say cheers to that, some have tested and found relatively high levels in certain malts which are used in brewing (25). Of noteworthy mention was caramel rye malt. It was also concluded the higher the temperatures used for roasting, the higher the levels. So yes, acrylamide is in beer, but overall, it doesn’t sound to be a major source. In fact, no acrylamide was detected in pale wheat malt.
Unfortunately, restaurants often create more acrylamide and Advanced Glycation End products than at-home cooking.
Why? Since they are focused on high turnover and prompt food preparation, they tend to cook items at even higher temperatures and for shorter amounts of time, to get it on your table faster. In other words, they take a shortcut and at home, you probably don’t. It’s no coincidence that you will find so many grilled and fried items on their menus. Especially at most fast food restaurants, which seem to serve nothing but fried chicken and burgers.
Restaurants have tried to spin these shortcut cooking techniques into a positive, by bragging about their charbroiled burgers or being a “black bottom” pizza from a wood burning stove. They want you to think those are sophisticated gourmet delicacies. They’re really just disasters.
10 tips for safer restaurant ordering
These work at home, too.
When ordering at restaurants, we often customize (or at least attempt to customize) the way some dishes are prepared. These tips include:
Your foods being steamed or boiled – instead of fried – whenever possible.
Your coffee being drip, not French press which has too much bean sediment. Purely filtered coffee has very little acrylamide, because it’s almost entirely in the bean. Also, the darkest roasts actually have less acrylamide because with coffee, it forms during the beginning of the roasting process and there is less at the end due to it being destroyed. Instant coffee crystals test out to have the highest.
Your stir-fry and similar dishes to be undercooked. Easy with vegan dishes, harder with meat due to salmonella and other bacterial issues.
Your steaks, ribs, poultry, fish, and other meats not being medium well or well done. Ideally have it rare or medium rare, which might be not possible/very risky for the same aforementioned safety. Cooking with a sous vide machine or slow cooker pot might be helpful as well.
Your baked dishes being lightly baked/under-baked so long as doing so doesn’t affect safety (this will help keep them moister).
Your sandwich bread or bun not being toasted.
Your bagel or toast not being toasted (ironic, yes).
Your pizza being lightly cooked. Ignore the brick oven “black-bottom” trend!
Breaking off and discarding the most burnt or darkest pieces.
Rarely eating the foods which are impossible to follow these tips with (e.g. fries, chips).
Supplements that might help
There is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the antioxidant L carnosine, which is a type of amino acid, may help protect cells from the damage of glycation. That’s why we use it daily and this is the brand on Amazon we buy.
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