Acrylamide is a chemical that naturally forms in certain foods, particularly plant-based foods that are rich in carbohydrates and low in protein, during processing or cooking at high temperatures. It is known to cause cancer in experimental animals and was first confirmed to be found in food by the Swedish National Food Authority in 2002.
Commercially, acrylamide is used in the manufacture of some plastics as well as various other materials. While acrylamide is used in making some food packaging, this use has not been found to add acrylamide to foods at levels that could pose a health concern.
No, acrylamide in not intentionally added to food. Rather, acrylamide forms from naturally occurring components in certain foods when cooked at sufficiently high temperatures.
Health Canada scientists have investigated why some foods have higher levels of acrylamide, for example, baked or fried foods, and have proved that acrylamide is not present in any ingredient of these food items prior to cooking and is not a contaminant inadvertently added at any stage of food preparation.
Health Canada scientists were among the first to demonstrate how acrylamide forms in certain heat-processed foods. Most acrylamide in food is formed when a natural amino acid called asparagine reacts with certain naturally occurring sugars such as glucose. This only happens when the temperature during cooking is sufficiently high, a temperature which varies depending on the properties of the product and the method of cooking.
The results of Health Canada's work on how acrylamide is formed in food were announced to the international scientific community and to the food industry, and subsequently published in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal ("Acrylamide in Foods: Occurrence, Sources, and Modelling" A. Becalski, B. P.-Y. Lau, D. Lewis, S.W. Seaman; Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003; 51(3): 802-808).
Dietary exposure to acrylamide has been identified as a potential concern by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food AdditivesFootnote 1 (JECFA). However, both Health Canada and JECFA agree that it is currently not possible to determine the precise level of risk for human health. Since acrylamide is known to cause cancer in experimental animals, further research on the effects of exposure to acrylamide is needed before the risks to human health associated with acrylamide exposure from food sources can be fully understood.
Work continues in this area, and as the results of new studies become available, Health Canada will continue to evaluate the level of risk associated with dietary exposure to acrylamide.
Based on what is currently known, it is impossible to determine recommended maximum exposure levels or to set daily consumption limits for specific foods containing acrylamide. However, research conducted by Health Canada and internationally indicates that french fries and potato chips typically contain the highest levels of acrylamide.
Health Canada's advice, consistent with Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide, is to have fried or deep-fried foods and snacks such as french fries and potato chips less often while choosing a healthy diet, including a variety of foods from each food group. Occasional consumption of these products is not likely to be a health concern.
Health Canada has also prepared some information on how to minimize acrylamide formation if, and when, you make french fries at home.
Health Canada's studies of food likely to contain acrylamide found wide-ranging concentrations in potato chips, french fries, cookies, breakfast cereals, bread, as well as other foods that are also processed at high temperatures such as coffee, roasted almonds, and grain-based coffee substitutes. Of the foods tested by Health Canada, potato chips and french fries tended to contain the most acrylamide, while lower levels were found in soft breads and cereals. Acrylamide was not found in boiled potatoes because the temperature during boiling is not high enough to cause acrylamide to be formed.
Health Canada will continue to measure acrylamide levels in foods as part of its Acrylamide Monitoring Program.
Acrylamide was included in Batch 5 of the Challenge under the Government of Canada Chemicals Management Plan. On February 21, 2009, the Government of Canada released its draft assessment report for acrylamide.
To ensure that Canadians' exposure to acrylamide from food sources is kept as low as possible, Health Canada has committed to working with health authorities in other countries to better understand how acrylamide is formed in foods, what foods contain the highest amounts of acrylamide, and what impact acrylamide has on human health. Health Canada is also collaborating with the food industry to further pursue reduction efforts for acrylamide in processed foods.
In conjunction with the release of the draft Screening Assessment Report (SAR) for Batch 5 chemicals, the Food Directorate (FD), part of the Health Products and Food Branch, has updated its proposed risk management measures, to limit Canadians' exposure to acrylamide from food sources.
Reducing acrylamide in prepared and packaged foods is a primary step towards reducing Canadians' exposure to acrylamide. Thus, Health Canada will continue to press food processors and the food service industry to develop and implement acrylamide reduction strategies. Health Canada will implement an acrylamide monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of those reduction strategies.
Health Canada is aware of changes implemented by food processors, which have already resulted in the reduction of acrylamide levels in certain food products. Health Canada will continue to support the development and implementation of additional tools that would minimize acrylamide formation, such as the use of the enzyme asparaginase in the manufacture of certain foods.
In addition, Health Canada will engage the food industry in the development of a guidance document outlining best practices for acrylamide reduction in prepackaged foods. Efforts will also be made to ensure that acrylamide reduction strategies are adopted by the Canadian food service industry.