We all know French fries and potato chips—unless you make and bake them in the comfort of your own kitchen—are typically loaded with calories, fat and sodium. But did you also know they can be a source of acrylamide?
First detected in food in 2002, acrylamide is a chemical that forms when sugars and asparagine (an amino acid) that are naturally found in plant-based foods including potatoes combine when those foods are fried, baked or boiled at high temperatures. Acrylamide formation can occur in foods prepared at home or at restaurants, or when foods are prepared commercially.
Scientists believe that high levels of acrylamide cause cancer in animals and may prove to do the same in humans as well. In fact, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) characterize acrylamide as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also believe acrylamide is a "probable human carcinogen."
Besides potatoes, sources of acrylamide in the diet include cereals (and cereal-based foods), coffee, crackers or breads, and dried fruits. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), acrylamide does not form, or forms at lower levels, in dairy, meat and fish products.
To help growers, manufacturers, and food service operators reduce acrylamide in products that are susceptible to its formation, the FDA issued draft guidance. And sometime in 2014 they plan to release data on how much acrylamide is found in food to help both food manufacturers and consumers have a better sense of where it lurks and to how to reduce exposure when eating and creating foods.
In the meantime, if you want to reduce your child's exposure to acrylamide (not to mention your own), here are some recommendations* from the FDA:
1. If frying frozen French fries, follow manufacturers' recommendations on time and temperature and avoid overcooking, heavy crisping or burning.
2. Toast bread to a light brown color rather than a dark brown color.
3. Cook cut potato products such as frozen French fries to a golden yellow rather than a brown color.
4. Keep potatoes outside the refrigerator in a dark, cool place, such as a closet or panty. (Storing potatoes in the refrigerator can increase the formation of acrylamide during cooking).
5. Follow current Dietary Guidelines for Americans by including in the diet plenty of produce, whole grains, far-free or low-fat milk products, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts. And choose foods low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars.
Until we know more about which foods in the food supply contribute any—or a lot of—acrylamide, it's wise to be prudent when trying to minimize exposure to it and to enhance the overall quality of your child's diet. As I always say in The Scoop on Food, mixing up the foods you offer your family can maximize nutrient intake and minimize any potential negatives associated with specific foods. Offering plenty of fresh, whole foods that are healthfully prepared and choosing fast food French fries, potato chips and other nutrient-poor foods on occasion rather than often can also help. It's also important to use more healthful, lower fat cooking methods in general, and to use less heat to cook potatoes and other foods. (Cooking meats, fish and poultry at lower temperatures—but safe temperatures at which they're fully cooked—and for less time can help minimize the formation of cancer-causing chemicals like heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.)
*Source: FDA Consumer Updates.
Image of stack of potato chips on white background via shutterstock.