Acrylamide: What You Need To Know
There are thousands of different toxins in our world, and it can be hard to keep them straight and know what actions are worth taking in your personal life. I truly understand. The state of the environment can feel overwhelming, but the more we learn, the more we can empower ourselves to take effective action.
My goal here is to break down the information and share it with you so that you can take these empowered, manageable, and realistic action steps in your daily life.
You may not have heard of acrylamide, as it is relatively new on the scene when it comes to toxicity and was not identified as a cancer risk until about 10 years ago. Acrylamide is an interesting chemical, and like mold, can be found in food as well as in the environment.
In this article, you will learn:
- What acrylamide is
- What foods contain acrylamide
- Industrial sources of acrylamide
- Health risks of acrylamide exposure
- What you can do to reduce exposure
What is Acrylamide?
Acrylamide is a chemical that is found most commonly in fried food as well as in industry.
Acrylamide is a common toxin found in food. It is formed when plant-based foods are cooked at high temperatures, as in frying, roasting, baking or commercial food processing. The amino acid asparagine reacts with the sugar molecules in the food to create acrylamide. This is one of hundreds of reactions that can occur when a food browns, collectively known as the Maillard reaction, that gives cooked food its flavor and golden brown color.
Acrylamide is quite widespread in many foods at low levels. However, certain foods contain much higher levels. These include:
- Potato chips
- French fries
- Instant coffee
Unfortunately, acrylamide is in many packaged and processed foods that many, including children and teenagers, rely on as dietary staples.
A 2014 study in the United Kingdom aimed to estimate acrylamide exposures in the common diet. The study tested food samples from 24 towns in 138 different categories for acrylamide. This study confirmed the highest amounts were found in snacks, potato products and cereals and these are also the highest sources in a typical UK diet.
The average consumption of acrylamide from dietary sources is 0.3 to 2.0 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day just from eating a typical diet of the culture. As a result of this study, the researchers in the UK determined acrylamide to be a public health concern.
Acrylamide and Industry
Acrylamide is also used in industry in plastic production, cosmetics, water treatment products, paper manufacturing, dyes and other industrial products. This creates an issue for occupational exposure and can lead to water contamination.
In addition, acrylamide is a component of cigarette smoke.
Like other toxins, the body relies on the liver to transform acrylamide into a compound that is able to leave the body via the colon, lungs, kidneys or skin. This first step of liver detoxification is called Phase 1 and utilizes the cytochrome P450 enzymes. In this process, acrylamide transforms into an intermediate compound called glycidamide. Both compounds are extremely harmful and affect the function of glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant, as well as influence the function of nerves, hormones and muscles. Both acrylamide and glycidamide are neurotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic.
Glycidamide is further transformed into a non-toxic compound through Phase 2 liver detoxification, which requires several keynutrients. In those with poor nutrient status or other factors influencing natural detoxification processes, the glycidamide and acrylamide can become elevated in the body causing damage.
Here are some ways that acrylamide can affect your health.
- Acrylamide is considered a potential endocrine disruptor, meaning that it can mimic or interfere with the body’s hormonal system, including sex hormones. This affects metabolism, growth and reproduction.
- Acrylamide can potentially affect thyroid hormone production, lowering T4, an important thyroid hormone.
- Acrylamide can increase oxidative stress on the body, which occurs when there aren’t enough antioxidants to protect cells from free radical damage.
- Acrylamide is associated with an increased lifetime risk of cancer.
- Animal studies conducted through the National Toxicology Program concluded that acrylamide showed a strong carcinogenic response in multiple areas of the body.
- In humans, acrylamide has been associated with endometrial, ovarian and kidney cancers in people who have never smoked.
Although certain genetic SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) may predispose someone to cancer, epigenetics plays a huge role here. This is yet another case where environmental toxins can affect gene expression. Unfortunately, when I check for acrylamide levels in my new patients, it is often elevated. Luckily, that means you can favorably influence your health by reducing your exposure to acrylamide.
7 Ways To to Reduce Your Acrylamide Exposure
1. Eat a Paleo diet. In general, I recommend my Every Life Well® Paleo Protocol, which excludes grains and processed foods. By following this eating template, you’ll naturally cut out a lot of acrylamide exposure. Many of my clients also opt to cut out potatoes and instead eat sweet potatoes, winter squash or green plantains.
- Buying organic foods doesn’t make a difference with acrylamide levels; however, by buying organic you’ll reduce your exposure to other toxins, including herbicides and pesticides.
2. Choose safer cooking methods. Baking, boiling or steaming is a safer method of cooking in terms of acrylamide. If you are going to eat fried potatoes or make toast, make sure they are lightly browned and not heavily browned or burnt. One trick is to soak raw potatoes in cold water for 15 minutes prior to cooking to reduce the potential for acrylamide formation. In addition, avoid storing raw potatoes in the fridge because this causes them to form more sugar, which can, in turn, increase acrylamide levels when cooked.
3. Avoid high acrylamide foods. Yes, this means even the organic potato chips cooked in avocado oil! These still contain acrylamide. The most important foods to avoid (or at least limit) are potato chips, French fries, commercial breads (especially toasted), cereals, packaged cookies, crackers and instant coffee.
4. Support liver detox. By supplying the liver with optimal nutrients to support both Phase 1 and Phase 2 liver detoxification, your body will be able to transform the toxic intermediate, glycidimide, and remove it from your body. Some important nutrients include:
- B vitamins
- Amino acids (from protein)
- Phytonutrients from colorful plant foods
- Vitamin C
In addition to a nutrient-dense Paleo diet, regular supplementation can be helpful. An easy way to cover your basis as far as nutrients for detox support is to include Paleo Detox Protein powder as part of your daily routine. It easily mixes into a smoothie for a breakfast or snack and provides everything you need.
5. Support public health measures. As a result of the risk assessment of acrylamide in food in the UK that I discussed above, the UK government has been supporting food manufacturers in processes to reduce acrylamide in the food supply. In addition, they are educating the public about reducing acrylamide from cooking at home and at restaurants.
In the United States, in 2005 the EPA determined acrylamide to be “likely carcinogenic to humans” and has set standards for allowable limits in drinking water. However, amounts in the US food supply have not been addressed.
6. Filter your water. I talk about this frequently, because I think it is one of the most important, and fairly easy, steps that you can take to reduce your toxin exposure. Not only do high–quality filters remove heavy metals, glyphosate (the herbicide in Roundup), chlorine, fluoride, PFAS, and more, but they also can remove acrylamide. Acrylamide can be in the water because of environmental contamination from industry and is often used in wastewater treatment itself. Check with your specific filter for data on acrylamide removal. See my guide to water filters here.
7. Don’t smoke. This one seems obvious since acrylamide is a component of cigarette smoke along with all the other health risks that smokers face. However, I also think that it is important to mention avoiding both second hand and third hand smoke as well.
In my mission to inform you about ways you can reduce your toxin exposure, acrylamide is a chemical that cannot be overlooked. In many ways, it is different from other environmental toxins in that the biggest source comes from how we cook and process our food.
I truly believe that food is medicine, and that “what” and “how” we eat is a foundational component to health. I talk about diet with every patient in my Functional Medicine practice, and it’s one of my most crucial “prescriptions.” Using food as medicine certainly means consuming nutrient-dense, healthful foods, but it also means considering what we don’t eat. By reducing or eliminating toxic foods, the body is more able to handle the exposures that we can’t control.
I hope you find this information empowering. Consider a habit that you can change in your own life that will lessen your acrylamide exposure and bring you more resilience.