The risks and management of acrylamide: how do you like your toast?

16 February 2022, Sterling Crew, Chair of the Food Authenticity Network’s Advisory Board and CIEH Trustee

Burnt toast rising out of red toaster

High levels of acrylamide have been proven to cause cancer in animals, and scientists agree that it has the potential to be a carcinogen for humans as well.

The presence of acrylamide in food was accidentally revealed in 2002 when workers in Sweden were exposed to acrylamide in an industrial accident. During the investigation, low levels of acrylamide were unexpectedly found in blood samples of a non-smoking control group of exposed workers. Researchers were intrigued by this anomaly and it led to them looking for other possible sources.

Surprisingly, the researchers found acrylamide in a number of commonly consumed foods, particularly those rich in carbohydrates and prepared by heating to a high temperature by frying, baking and roasting. These include crisps, chips, bread, biscuits, cakes and coffee. Acrylamide is formed during the Maillard Reaction, which takes place when the sugars and amino acids in the food are heated.

The occurrence of acrylamide in food rapidly became an emerging potential global food safety issue. It is however not a new risk. Acrylamide has been a natural part of our diet ever since foods were first prepared by fire some 250,000 years ago and cooking improved nutrition through cooked proteins.

Acrylamide’s long-term widespread use means its toxicological profile has been extensively studied. However, it is impossible to draw any defining conclusions about the risk present in food because of other potential sources. For example, smoking cigarettes can cause an increased level of acrylamide in the blood, three times greater than any dietary factor.

Acrylamide is regulated by Regulation (EU) 2017/2158. The Regulation is made under Article 4(4) of the Food Hygiene Regulation (EC) No 852/200. Food business operators are required to adopt relevant mitigation measures set out in the Annex to the Regulation, as part of their FSMS based on HACCP principles. This is to ensure that the levels of acrylamide in food are as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA). The measures recommended are intended to be proportionate to the nature and size of the business. This is to ensure that small and micro-businesses are not burdened disproportionately.

There are no statutory limits for acrylamide levels in food, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that they can’t recommend a tolerable daily intake (TDI) of acrylamide in food. The position of the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is that although acrylamide has damaging consequences for people who have been exposed to very high levels as a result of their occupation or accidents, it is less clear whether the risks are from the acrylamide found in food.

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