Complexities in Food Safety

Posted on February 18, 2018

Complexities in Food Safety – The Maillard Reaction Part Two


In a previous post I discussed why the WHO classified red meat as a carcinogen. Unfortunately there is a similar concern in vegetable matter as well – Acrylamide. Considered an Extremely Hazardous Substance by the United States, acrylamide is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin. Easily absorbed through the skin it has been linked to tumors in the testes, lungs, adrenal glands, and thyroid. It is also a skin irritant and has been known to cause Peripheral Neuropathy. In short, acrylamide is not something you want to deal with.

In 2002 Eden Tareke, an Eritean scientist working in Sweden, discovered acrylamide in starchy foods. The highest levels have been found in potatoes and grains, but it is also present black olives, coffee, prunes, and many other foods. Because this is a byproduct of the Maillard reaction cooking is required for acrylamide to form. Although the process is not fully understood, it seems to be produced when asparagine interacts with reducing sugars, and there is some evidence that reactive carbonyls play a role as well. Darkly browned potatoes have higher levels than lightly browned, and certain cooking methods don’t produce it at all. Boiling for instance does not allow the food to get to the required 120 °C for acrylamide formation. Frying and broiling in oil seem to create higher levels as well, while dry baking produces less. The length of cooking also affects acrylamide formation, with longer heat exposure leading to higher levels. All of this means that we can change our food production processes to reduce the amount of acrylamide in food.

So we know that acrylamide is dangerous, we know that it is created when we cook certain foods, but how does this affect human health? The data is still murky. Average diet intake is well below the levels considered to cause neuropathy and fertility issues. Its risk as a carcinogen in food is much less clear. The American Cancer Society is still uncertain if it increases your chance of getting of getting cancer. It should be mentioned that there is another common source of acrylamide exposure – cigarette smoke. So if you worried about acrylamide exposure you can reduce your intake of fried potato products, avoid smoking, and consider cooking grains at less than 120 °C. Me, I’m not too worried about the amounts present in food. There are plenty of health reasons to avoid french fries already, I don’t need to tack on another one.