Thanks to advances in science and modern medicine, we know about the dangerous components of some edible items. High-fructose corn syrup, free radicals, MSG, BHA, and artificial sweeteners are among the most harmful products found in food, but the effects of some compounds are still a mystery. Acrylamide can be manufactured or form naturally, is one of the latter. What little is known about this chemical is not good, and the potentially severe side effects linked to it have brought it into the medical and scientific limelight in recent decades.
Acrylamide has industrial uses as a thickener and in creating polyacrylamides for water treatment and textile manufacturing. However, the chemical is highly toxic. In the early 2000s, scientists discovered low levels of acrylamide in certain baked and fried foods.
Acrylamide exists in foods that contain the amino acid asparagine, though it is generally created only when asparagine is heated to a high temperature and when it reacts with sugar during the cooking process. Starchy foods like potatoes, grains, nuts, and legumes are common sources of acrylamide, and it is also found in coffee and tea. The longer you cook a starch or food that can form acrylamide, the greater the chance that the chemical will form and the larger the quantity.
The polyacrylamides that help purify water and treat wastewater occasionally leave trace amounts of acrylamide in our drinking water. Polyacrylamide is also used in the grouting of water wells and reservoirs. Acrylamide is biodegradable in water, sand, and soil, which means that surface levels can contaminate drinking and freshwater. Still, acrylamide’s presence in drinking water is rare and only found in small amounts.
Tobacco smoke is a significant source of acrylamide. Research shows acrylamide levels in smokers can be 50% higher than in nonsmokers. Other studies estimate the amount to be much higher, nearly 75%. Long-term exposure to the chemical increases health risks both for smokers and people who inhale secondhand tobacco smoke.
Researchers don't know the exact effects of acrylamide in humans. Animal studies indicate numerous detrimental effects, including cancer and tumors, but information on humans is scarce due to a lack of findings in past research and a lack of substantial information about acrylamide content in foods. What scientists do know is that the chemical is a potential neurotoxin, genotoxin, carcinogen, developmental toxin, and reproductive toxin.
Acrylamide can cause tumor formation due to its carcinogenicity. A carcinogen is any substance that causes or contributes to the growth of tumors, either benign or malignant. Researchin rats found a definite correlation between acrylamide exposure and cancer development and that changes on a genetic or chromosomal level could be another cause of the tumors. This contributes to the theory that acrylamide is also a genotoxin, a substance that causes changes in genetic code. Despite the lack of proper research on humans, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared acrylamide a potential human carcinogen in 1994.
More research on animals has revealed the dangers acrylamide poses to reproductive health and how it inhibits fetal development. One of the few studies conducted with humans found that mothers with a higher acrylamide intake during pregnancy had less developed fetuses. Acrylamide in high doses can also cause testicular damage in animals and lower sperm count.
While the levels of acrylamide to which people are exposed are typically low, some scientists and physicians express concern regarding the neurotoxic effects seen in humans and animals in the past. It is possible that the neurological effects of acrylamide include altered neurotransmitter levels, the inhibition of the transport of messages from one nerve port to another. High exposure is not always necessary. Prolonged exposure to even low levels could result in peripheral neuropathy.
Acrylamide levels can be reduced in some foods by changing the cooking method and adding other substances that reduce the effects of acrylamide or inhibit its formation. For example, antioxidants and flavonoids can inhibit the acrylamide build-up in caffeinated liquids like teas and coffee. The antioxidants in bamboo leaves were demonstrated to stop acrylamide formation in fried potato crisps, and blanching potatoes helps reduce the chemical by decreasing the sugars with which asparagine can react. Other ways to reduce your intake include avoiding fried, starchy foods in large quantities and drinking treated, purified water. Smokers can reduce their acrylamide levels by quitting, which has plenty of additional benefits.
Acrylamide levels in drinking water are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Internationally, the World Health Organization has also drawn attention to the need for regulating and cleaning drinking water of acrylamide. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the amounts of the chemical in products that come in contact with edibles, but there are currently no regulations on the levels of acrylamide in food.
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