Acrylamide: The Food Toxin That Could Cause Cancer

Acrylamide is a well-established carcinogen and neurotoxin (causes nerve damage). According to Lois Gold, director of the Carcinogenic Potency Project at the University of California, Berkeley, “You get more acrylamide from smoking than you do from food.” But based on a newly released Swedish report that indicates acrylamide is a by-product of fried foods, there is definite room for concern-not panic.

The study was based on the original findings that adduct levels (products of acrylamide that react with blood hemoglobin) were found in people who hadn’t been exposed to it. Because the amount is considered a cancer risk, it was deemed important to identify acrylamide’s origin. A scientific group at the University of Stockholm, headed by Professor Margareta Törnqvist, found that acrylamide is formed during the heating of starch-rich foods to high temperatures. 1

The same thing was shown in a previous Swedish study, done two years ago, in which rats were fed fried animal feed for one or two months. 2

What’s your risk? The bad news is, the typical American diet contains rather large amounts of acrylamide, and it’s even more prevalent in diets that contain a lot of fried foods.

The good news is that diets low in fried starchy foods contain very low levels of acrylamide. Also, the amount of acrylamide needed to cause cancer in humans is still unknown.

What foods contain acrylamide? Acrylamide is probably formed in many types of food, many of which have not yet been analyzed. But among the foods that have been analyzed, potato chips and French fries generally contained the highest levels. The average content in potato chips is approximately 1000 micrograms/kg and in French fries approximately 500 micrograms/kg. Other food groups which may contain low as well as high levels of acrylamide are fried bread products-such as doughnuts-breakfast cereals, fried potato products, biscuits, cookies and snacks, such as tortilla chips and popcorn. 3

Foods that are not fried, deep fried or oven-baked during production or preparation are not considered to contain any appreciable levels of acrylamide. No levels could be detected in any of the raw foodstuffs or foods cooked by boiling, including potatoes, rice, pasta, and flour.3

How much acrylamide do you ingest on a daily basis? The Swedish National Food Administration’s 1997-98 survey3 of 1200 individuals, aged 17 to 70, found that an average intake of approximately 25 micrograms per day (maximum intake is approximately six times higher) of acrylamide is obtained, based on the food groups shown below. The remaining food groups are estimated to account for approximately 10-15 micrograms of acrylamide; in total an average intake of 35-40 micrograms. The percentage contribution based on an intake of 40 micrograms acrylamide per day results in:

  • potato products: 36 % (French fries 16 %, fried potatoes 10 %, potato chips 10 %)
  • bread: 16 %
  • biscuits, cookies and wafers: 5 %
  • breakfast cereals: 3 %
  • remaining foodstuffs groups, basically not investigated yet: 40 %

What does that mean?

It’s still too soon to know exactly how much acrylamide is considered dangerous to humans.

What can you do to counteract the bad effects of acrylamide? If you have a lot of will power, the best thing, of course, is to eat NO fried foods at all. The Swedish National Food Administration advises people to stop smoking, and to avoid burning food during frying, deep-frying, broiling and grilling, and to especially not eat burned food, period! 3

Have your cake and eat it, too. If you must have your fries and chips, and want to counteract the bad effects of acrylamide, there are a couple of nutritional supplements that are believed to offer protection against acrylamide’s toxicity.

N-acetyl-cysteine and lipoic acid have been shown to be protective against acrylamides toxicity and offer a dietary means of counteracting acrylamide’s bad effects.

One study showed that rats and mice that were given acrylamide over a period of seven days developed tumors. When they were also treated with N-acetyl- L-cysteine, the incidence of tumors was inhibited. 4

Another study showed that acrylamide’s neurotoxicity was due to a dramatic reduction in glucose metabolism in nerve cells, and that lipoic acid could help prevent this negative effect and help restore normal metabolism and prevent damage. 5

Is acrylamide risk new?

Probably not, according to the Swedish National Food Administration. “We have probably been exposed to acrylamide in food for generations.” Other sources than foodstuffs (estimated average intake of 35-40 microgram/day), e.g. cosmetics, drinking water, and a possible endogenous formation in the body of acrylamide, could, to a lower extent, contribute to a background level. “The new, emerging knowledge may make it possible to reduce the risks that we have so far accepted. This is a very positive development.” 6

In the meantime, eat lots of fruits and veggies, and protect yourself with a good antioxidant. And it wouldn’t hurt if you limit the amount of fried foods in your diet, as they contain both acrylamide and other damaging chemicals formed by the heating and oxidation of oil


  1. Tareke E, Rydberg P, Karlsson P, Eriksson S, Tornqvist M. Analysis of acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in heated foodstuffs.J Agric Food Chem, 2002 Aug 14;50(17):4998-5006.
  2. Tareke E, Rydberg P, Karlsson P, Eriksson S, Tornqvist M. Acrylamide: a cooking carcinogen? Chem Res Toxicol 2000 Jun;13(6):517-22
  4. Park J, Kamendulis LM, Friedman MA, Klaunig JE Acrylamide-induced cellular transformation. Toxicol Sci 2002 Feb;65(2):177-83
  5. Anuradha B, Varalakshmi P. Activities of glucose-metabolizing enzymes in experimental neurotoxic models with lipoate as an alleviator. J Appl Toxicol 1999 Nov-Dec;19(6):405-9