Topics A-Z

Acrylamide

Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a substance that may be formed in foods, typically starchy products including crisps, French fries, bread and crispbreads, during cooking processes including frying, baking and roasting at temperatures of 120 °C or higher. Acrylamide is a known carcinogen in experimental animals hence efforts should be made to minimise exposure from all sources including diet. 

A substantial body of international research has been carried out to build greater understanding of acrylamide, how it is formed in foods, what the risks are for consumers and how to reduce occurrence levels. The European Commission has funded research projects to this end and the former Scientific Committee on Food issued an opinion on acrylamide in 2002 shortly after the first study on acrylamide in foods was published. 

Since the discovery of acrylamide in foods in 2002, industry has sought to identify ways to reduce its formation in foods. As acrylamide is formed in food by common cooking practices, it is likely that people have been exposed to acrylamide in their diet for some considerable time. Choosing a balanced and varied diet, and avoiding overcooking of foods, will contribute to reducing acrylamide intake levels.

EFSA activities

In May 2009, EFSA’s Data Collection and Exposure Unit published a report on acrylamide levels in different foods, based on data from Member States. It was the first of three reports covering 2007, 2008 and 2009 respectively. The DATEX Unit concluded that there appeared to be a trend towards lower acrylamide levels although this was not observable in all the food groups analysed. Moreover, it was too early to judge the effectiveness of the “acrylamide toolbox” approach developed by the food industry to help reduce exposure to acrylamide. The two further reports are due to be published in 2010 and 2011.

In 2005 EFSA’s Panel on contaminants in the food chain (CONTAM) considered a report of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). In a statement at the time, the Panel endorsed the conclusions of JECFA that acrylamide poses a human health concern and that efforts should be made to reduce exposure. EFSA continues to monitor ongoing developments in scientific research and plays an active role in building understanding of acrylamide in foods. EFSA is co-operating with national food safety authorities in the Member States in order to set up a Europe-wide database on acrylamide occurrence levels in a range of foods.

Overview and chronology

In 2002, Swedish researchers found for the first time that acrylamide can be formed unintentionally in potatoes and cereal-based products as a result of common cooking methods such as baking, frying and roasting at high temperatures (higher than 120°C). Until then acrylamide was only known as a highly reactive industrial chemical, present for instance at low levels in tobacco smoke. At that time the neurotoxicity of acrylamide in humans was known from instances of high occupational and accidental exposure when acrylamide is used in industrial processes in the production of plastics and materials. Studies in animals had shown that acrylamide induces cancer and also affects reproductive performance.

  • In February 2005, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) carried out a safety evaluation of acrylamide in food concluding that the issue poses a human health concern. This conclusion was consistent with an opinion published by the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) in 2002. Since uncertainties remained, JECFA concluded that the safety of acrylamide should be re-evaluated in the light of further research and that efforts should be made to reduce acrylamide levels in food. In April 2005 the EFSA Panel on contaminants in the food chain (CONTAM) stated its agreement with the principal conclusions and recommendations of the JECFA evaluation.
  • Exposure data which are required to evaluate the link between acrylamide and cancer are very limited. In 2002, the European Commission began collecting occurrence data on the levels of acrylamide in foods. EFSA has taken over this task in 2006, in co-operation with Member States.
  • A wide range of actors including national food safety authorities in the EU Member States, academia and food manufacturers have sought to better understand acrylamide and to reduce levels in foods. Many countries continue to contribute to the growing body of research and data. Workshops on this issue have been organised by EFSA in 2003 and the European Commission jointly with the European food and drink industry association (CIAA) in 2006. Efforts have been made by food manufacturers to modify recipes and processes to reduce acrylamide occurrence in foods such as French fries, snacks and crisps. The CIAA has published an “Acrylamide Toolbox” based on existing knowledge in the food industry which is regularly updated. The European Commission has funded a number of research projects including the HEATOX project to look at heat-generated food toxicants, in particular at acrylamide, focussing on identifying, characterising and minimising risks.
  • EFSA organised a scientific workshop in Spring 2008 with all interested parties including JECFA and members of the HEATOX project in order to discuss EFSA’s further contribution in providing scientific advice regarding acrylamide and its relation to health.

  • EFSA will continue to monitor ongoing developments in scientific research. There are uncertainties as regards the link between acrylamide and cancer risk in humans: some results suggest a link between human exposure and cancer whilst others do not support such a conclusion.  

Useful links:

Food Contaminants: Acrylamide - European Commission

CIAA Acrylamide Toolbox

FAQs on Acrylamide in Food - World Health Organization

Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) 

Public Consultations & Calls for Contribution