Dean Duxbury

Although announced as a potential cause of cancer in foods, based on animal studies in several countries, acrylamide is still a mystery chemical in foods today.

Acrylamide is a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics, in some food packaging, as a coagulant in drinking water, and in grouts for construction of drinking water reservoirs. It is not a substance that is added to foods, but in April 2002, researchers at the Swedish National Food Authority showed that acrylamide can be produced in certain starch-based foods, such as potato chips and French fries, when they have been cooked at high temperatures.

Since then, this interesting new knowledge about a possible toxic chemical endangering long-standing food products assumed safe for consumption has been confirmed by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Japan, Korea, and Switzerland.

Prior to releasing its “Draft Action Plan for Acrylamide in Food,” in September 2002 (updated in February 2003 and March 2004,, the Food and Drug Administration tested about 300 foods for acrylamide levels and planned to test an additional 1,500.

FDA recently tested 750 popular food products. Besides French fries and potato chips, bakery and cereal products were evaluated. The results indicated that acrylamide levels can vary considerably, depending on the type of food and the cooking conditions. The highest levels were found in high-carbohydrate foods that are cooked longer at higher temperatures. FDA also reported significant concentrations of acrylamide in some baby foods, nuts, peanut butter, chocolate products, coffee, various dried foods, prune juice, black olives, and fast-food chicken nuggets. Health Canada, FDA’s counterpart in Canada, has also conducted food product testing, and preliminary results showed much lower levels of acrylamide in soft breads and cereals (

Despite the presence of acrylamide in many processed foods, its being put into the category of a probable cause of cancer in humans has been based on animal studies that have not yet been proven relevant to human health. Therefore, it is not known whether acrylamide actually poses a human health risk. An epidemiological study by U.S. and Swedish researchers in January 2003 used populations who eat more foods containing acrylamide and found no link between acrylamide consumption and the risk of bladder or kidney cancer.

James R. Coughlin, President of Coughlin & Associates, Consultants in Food/Chemical/Environmental Toxicology and Safety, PMB 213, 27881 La Paz Rd, Suite G, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677, published an excellent summary on acrylamide as the Back Page article, “Acrylamide: What We Have Learned So Far,” in the February 2003 issue of Food Technology.

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Is Testing for Acrylamide Also a Mystery?
What is the recommended methodology for testing for the presence and content of acrylamide in foods? At this moment, there is no required methodology or method “approved” by AOAC International. FDA has developed its own method and recommends a liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) methodology as needed. The method has been posted on FDA’s Web site since July 2002, and FDA will undertake a peer validation of the method and then submit the results to AOAC International for publication.

An April 15, 2004, report of the Analytical Methods Working Group (with representatives from major food processors, food trade associations, food regulatory agencies, and universities worldwide) has been conducting “testing rounds” for determining levels of acrylamide in various foods. Six rounds have been completed to date, and a seventh round was initiated in March 2004.

Henry B. Chin, Vice President of Laboratory Centers, National Food Processors Association, Dublin, Calif., is currently chairing this Working Group. He responded to my question regarding reliability and recommendation of the FDA method or others I found in the literature, such as gas chromatography (GC), the Fluka test kit, and the Krob method, as follows:
“We (NFPA) have conducted three ‘ring’ tests of analytical methodology for acrylamide in foods. The most recent was conducted as part of the JIFSAN Workshop on Acrylamide in Foods. In this ring test, we had laboratories participating from the U.S. and Europe, government, industry, and private testing laboratories. In general, all of the laboratories using LC/MS/MS methods performed very well and produced results that were both precise and accurate. Laboratories using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) methods can be made to perform as well as the LC/MS/MS methods. I would recommend the latter as the first choice for analytical methodology for acrylamide.”

He also commented further: “The Fluka test kit is not a ‘test kit’ in the traditional sense, but rather a kit containing reagents necessary for carrying out the analysis by GC. I think that the ‘Krob’ method is a GC/MS method. Unfortunately, there has not been a multi-laboratory collaborative study of any the test methods, but on the basis of ring tests conducted by both NFPA and the European Commission’s Joint Research Center Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements, it is clear that in the hands of competent analysts, the LC/MS/MS methods are capable of producing good results.”

Alternative testing methods continue to be evaluated by researchers to determine the optimum methodology to solve the mystery of safety of acrylamide in foods. At the July 2004 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting, several papers were presented on methodologies used to study different processing effects on the release of acrylamide from a food matrix or on acrylamide formation in foods. T.S. Nordmark, D.G. Peterson, R.K.Owusu-Apenten, and K. Seetharaman of Pennsylvania State University’s Food Science Dept. studied analysis of baked potato chips. The results showed that chips subjected to a full digestion protocol (compared to only a brief treatment with enzymes or water) permitted a significantly higher content of acrylamide to be detected. The added reagents had no effect, and high detection was due to inclusion of a digestion step. Author Seetharaman described the detailed methodology used, which included an analysis of the digested extract by GC followed by confirmation of the identity of the peak by MS.

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For More Information
For information on using GC for analysis of acrylamide in foods, contact Restek Corp., 110 Benner Cl., Bellefonte, PA 16823 (phone 800-356-1688, fax 814-353-1309,

For information on GC/MS for analysis of acrylamide, contact WCAS, 9240 Santa Fe Springs Rd., Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670 (phone 562-948.2225, fax 562-948-5850, [email protected]).

For information on the Fluka Acrylamide Testkit for detection of acrylamide in foods, contact Fluka, Industriestrasse 25, CH-9471 Buchs SG, Switzerland (phone +41(0)81 755 25 11; fax +41(0)81 755 28 15, e-mail [email protected]).

California’s Proposition 65 poses problem
An example of the impact the Swedish acrylamide finding can make on the food industry is the California “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986” (Proposition 65). This law requires a cancer warning on the consumer product label if the average daily consumption level exceeds certain limits. Two groups sued several food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants for noncompliance. Subsequently, a coalition of food trade associations requested that the state exempt acrylamide as posing no significant risk.

Rhona Applebaum, Executive Vice President of the National Food Processors Association, recently offered a position statement in 2004 that “FDA’s research on acrylamide levels in various foods is neither a warning to consumers nor a finding of risk associated with any particular foods or individual brands.”

Health Canada advises that, on the basis of the information available, there is no need to make major dietary changes. This advice is consistent with that provided by FDA and was a recommendation from the World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization’s expert consultation on acrylamide.

Contributing Editor
Consultant, Oak Brook, Ill.
[email protected]