Toxic Toast? The 411 on Acrylamide

By Alan Greene, MD, FAAP

Posted on | By Alan Greene, MD, FAAP

You’re probably well aware that carbs like French fries, potato chips and white bread can be empty calories that help you pack on the pounds. But did you know they can also contain a toxic by-product of the cooking process that’s been linked to cancer?

The substance is called acrylamide. It’s an industrial chemical known to increase infertility and neurological problems at high doses. The EPA regulates acrylamide in drinking water to protect public health. But it’s not regulated in food.

We haven’t known about its presence in food for long – because it’s not an ingredient or a contaminant. How does it get there? Here’s how: Certain natural sugars and certain natural protein building blocks become fused together to form acrylamide when temperatures top 250°F (typical toasters top 300°F). Many foods don’t have the right combo of nutrients to produce acrylamide, even when cooked for a long time, but a few very popular ones do.

Here are the top foods to be aware of:

  • French fries and potato chips
  • Crackers
  • Toasted breakfast cereals
  • Cookies
  • Bread

And, the browner the toast or cereal or potato, the more acrylamide it likely contains.

All other things being equal, frying produces the most acrylamide. Roasting is better. Baking better still. And when it comes to acrylamide, steaming or boiling can produce none at all.

Fast Facts

  • The amount of acrylamide in a typical large order of fast food fries can be 200 to 2000 times the amount allowed by the EPA in a glass of water.
  • The #1 source of calories for American kids is cooked white flour snacks and treats.
  • The top two “vegetables” eaten by kids are French fries and potato chips.
  • Experts suggest that 30% of all cancers are caused by diet. Perhaps acrylamide plays a key role.

The Good News

Now, the good news: There are easy ways to reduce your exposure and protect your family.

The basic idea is to dial it back. Dial back the temperature, dial back the cooking time above 250° F, and dial back the number of servings of french fries or crackers. Here’s how:

1. Change how you prep carbs.

If you’re going to cook potatoes, consider putting them in a bowl of water 30 minutes before you cook. This can cut acrylamide levels by up to 38%. Soaking for two hours does even more and doesn’t take extra work, just a bit of forethought. Even rinsing potatoes before cooking helps.

Here’s another trick: Store potatoes in a cool place but NOT the fridge. Storing potatoes in the fridge prior to cooking increases acrylamide when you bake them.

Many kids like the crusts cut from sandwiches, and they might be on to something! Crusts have the highest acrylamide content before and after you toast it.

And if you bake your own bread, add some rosemary (roughly 1 teaspoon) to dough prior to baking. This can reduce acrylamide by up to 60%.

2. Change how you cook carbs.

Next time you roast potatoes, take them out when they’re golden yellow rather than crispy brown.

If you want to eat potatoes and avoid acrylamide altogether, consider steaming or boiling.

The water can keep the temp at 212°F, below the 250 °F needed for the acrylamide reaction. Microwaving also does not tend to create acrylamide.

Toast your bread for a shorter period of time and at the lowest level. Or skip the bread altogether. Make your sandwich or burger on a butter lettuce wrap.

3. Change what carbs you cook.

Try broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. These are all cruciferous vegetables and contain agents that could both deactivate cancer-causing chemicals and stop the growth of existing cancer cells. So, five or more servings a week could offer dual protection against the effects of acrylamide. (I’m not suggesting you can have all the fries you want if you eat broccoli! We don’t know of any foods that get directly rid of acrylamide in your body, but cruciferous veggies have been linked in some studies to lower cancer risks.)

Keep in mind that this isn’t a new problem. We’ve been eating acrylamide in foods for a long time, we just didn’t know it. There’s no reason to expect a new epidemic. I’m most concerned about this problem for women, since acrylamide has been shown to affect reproductive organs, and for kids, since they’re still developing and more vulnerable to carcinogens in general.

While it’s not a new problem, we’re talking about a new solution. By reducing acrylamide, there’s a chance we could lower cancer risk and neurodevelopmental problems.

Article written by Alan Greene, MD, FAAP
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