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Acrylamide and Cancer Risk

What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a chemical used primarily to make substances called polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers. Polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers are used in many industrial processes, such as the production of paper, dyes, and plastics, and in the treatment of drinking water and wastewater, including sewage. They are also found in consumer products, such as caulking, food packaging, and some adhesives.

Acrylamide is also found in some foods. It can be produced when vegetables that contain the amino acid asparagine, such as potatoes, are heated to high temperatures in the presence of certain sugars (1, 2). It is also a component of tobacco smoke.

How are people exposed to acrylamide?

Food and cigarette smoke are the major sources of acrylamide exposure for people in the general population (3, 4).

The major food sources of acrylamide are French fries and potato chips; crackers, bread, and cookies; breakfast cereals; canned black olives; prune juice; and coffee.

Acrylamide levels in food vary widely depending on the manufacturer, the cooking time, and the method and temperature of the cooking process (5, 6). Decreasing cooking time to avoid heavy crisping or browning, blanching potatoes before frying, not storing potatoes in a refrigerator, and post-drying (drying in a hot air oven after frying) have been shown to decrease the acrylamide content of some foods (7, 8).

People are exposed to substantially more acrylamide from tobacco smoke than from food. People who smoke have three to five times higher levels of acrylamide exposure markers in their blood than do non-smokers (9). Exposure from other sources is likely to be significantly less than that from food or smoking, but scientists do not yet have a complete understanding of all sources of exposure. Regulations are in place to limit exposure in workplaces where acrylamide may be present, such as industrial settings that use polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers.

Is there an association between acrylamide and cancer?

Studies in rodent models have found that acrylamide exposure increases the risk for several types of cancer (1013). In the body, acrylamide is converted to a compound called glycidamide, which causes mutations in and damage to DNA. However, a large number of epidemiologic studies (both case-control and cohort studies) in humans have found no consistent evidence that dietary acrylamide exposure is associated with the risk of any type of cancer (9, 14). One reason for the inconsistent findings from human studies may be the difficulty in determining a person’s acrylamide intake based on their reported diet.

The National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens considers acrylamide to be reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen, based on studies in laboratory animals given acrylamide in drinking water. However, toxicology studies have shown that humans and rodents not only absorb acrylamide at different rates, they metabolize it differently as well (1517).

Studies of workplace exposure have shown that high levels of occupational acrylamide exposure (which occurs through inhalation) cause neurological damage, for example, among workers using acrylamide polymers to clarify water in coal preparation plants (18). However, studies of occupational exposure have not suggested increased risks of cancer (19).

Are acrylamide levels regulated?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates acrylamide in drinking water. The EPA established an acceptable level of acrylamide exposure, set low enough to account for any uncertainty in the data relating acrylamide to cancer and neurotoxic effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the amount of residual acrylamide in a variety of materials that contact food, but there are currently no guidelines governing the presence of acrylamide in food itself.

What research is needed to better understand whether acrylamide is associated with cancer in people?

Additional epidemiologic studies in which acrylamide adduct or metabolite levels are serially measured in the same individuals over time (longitudinal cohorts) are needed to help determine whether dietary acrylamide intakes are associated with increased cancer risks in people. It is also important to determine how acrylamide is formed during the cooking process and whether acrylamide is present in foods other than those already tested. This information will enable researchers to make more accurate and comprehensive estimates of dietary exposure. Biospecimen collections in cohort studies will provide an opportunity to examine biomarkers of exposure to acrylamide and its metabolites in relation to the subsequent risk of cancer.

Where can people find additional information about acrylamide?

For more information about acrylamide in food, contact the FDA at 1-888-SAFEFOOD (1-888-723-3366) or visit their Acrylamide page.

Selected References
  1. Stadler RH, Blank I, Varga N, et al. Acrylamide from Maillard reaction products. Nature 2002; 419(6906): 449–450. doi:10.1038/419449a.

  2. Mottram DS, Wedzicha BL, Dodson AT. Acrylamide is formed in the Maillard reaction. Nature 2002; 419(6906):448–449. doi:10.1038/419448a.

  3. Urban M, Kavvadias D, Riedel K, Scherer G, Tricker AR. Urinary mercapturic acids and a hemoglobin adduct for the dosimetry of acrylamide exposure in smokers and nonsmokers. Inhalation Toxicology 2006; 18(10):831–839.

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  4. Çebi A. Acrylamide Intake, Its Effects on Tissue and Cancer. In: Gökmen V, editor. Acrylamide in Food. Analysis, Content and Potential Health Effects. London: Academic Press, 2016.

  5. Tareke E, Rydberg P, Karlsson P, Eriksson S, Tornqvist M. Analysis of acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in heated foodstuffs. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2002; 50(17):4998–5006.

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  6. Mojska H, Gielecinska I, Szponar L. Acrylamide content in heat-treated carbohydrate-rich foods in Poland. Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny 2007; 58(1):345–349.

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  7. Kita A, Brathen E, Knutsen SH, Wicklund T. Effective ways of decreasing acrylamide content in potato crisps during processing. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2004; 52(23):7011–7016.

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  8. Skog K, Viklund G, Olsson K, Sjoholm I. Acrylamide in home-prepared roasted potatoes. Molecular Nutrition and Food Research 2008; 52(3):307–312.

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  9. Virk-Baker MK, Nagy TR, Barnes S, Groopman J. Dietary acrylamide and human cancer: a systematic review of literature. Nutrition and Cancer 2014;66(5):774-790.

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  10. Dearfield KL, Abernathy CO, Ottley MS, Brantner JH, Hayes PF. Acrylamide: Its metabolism, developmental and reproductive effects, genotoxicity, and carcinogenicity. Mutation Research 1988; 195(1):45–77.

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  11. Dearfield KL, Douglas GR, Ehling UH, et al. Acrylamide: A review of its genotoxicity and an assessment of heritable genetic risk. Mutation Research 1995; 330(1–2):71–99.

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  12. Friedman M. Chemistry, biochemistry, and safety of acrylamide. A review. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2003; 51(16):4504–4526.

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  13. National Toxicology Program. Toxicology and carcinogenesis studies of acrylamide (CASRN 79-06-1) in F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice (feed and drinking water studies). National Toxicology Program technical report series 2012; (575):1-234.

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  14. Lipworth L, Sonderman JS, Tarone RE, McLaughlin JK. Review of epidemiologic studies of dietary acrylamide intake and the risk of cancer. European Journal of Cancer Prevention 2012; 21(4):375-386.

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  15. Fuhr U, Boettcher MI, Kinzig-Schippers M, et al. Toxicokinetics of acrylamide in humans after ingestion of a defined dose in a test meal to improve risk assessment for acrylamide carcinogenicity. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention 2006; 15(2):266–271.

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  16. Fennell TR, Friedman MA. Comparison of acrylamide metabolism in humans and rodents. Advances in experimental medicine and biology 2005; 561:109-116.

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  17. Gargas ML, Kirman CR, Sweeney LM, Tardiff RG. Acrylamide: Consideration of species differences and nonlinear processes in estimating risk and safety for human ingestion. Food and chemical toxicology 2009; 47(4):760-768.

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  18. Mulloy KB. Two case reports of neurological disease in coal mine preparation plant workers. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 1996; 30(1):56–61.

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  19. Pelucchi C, La Vecchia C, Bosetti C, Boyle P, Boffetta P. Exposure to acrylamide and human cancer--a review and meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies. Annals of Oncology 2011; 22(7):1487-1499.

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