The discovery of acrylamide in many common foods in 2002 prompted a flurry of research intended to determine just how much consumers were ingesting. The list of foods containing the substance included some all-time American favorites like fries, snack chips and crackers. How much of a threat were consumers facing?
“Coming up in 2008, [the Food and Drug Administration] is expected to complete new, long-term rat and mouse carcinogenic assays and provide more reliable data on the potential carcinogenic risks posed by acrylamide exposure,” said Sebastian Cianci, an FDA spokesman, adding that the data will be crunched with other information to develop a risk assessment. “Once we know what the risk is, it'll help us assess whether there's an issue that needs to be [further addressed].”
The immediate concern subsided after subsequent research, conducted in part by the Harvard School of Public Health, found no association between the consumption of foods high in acrylamide and increased risk of three forms of cancer. Nevertheless, more than 200 separate investigations around the world have been focused on the potential dangers of acrylamide in foods.
As a chemical, acrylamide is mostly used in processing and is believed to harm the nervous system and male reproductive organs. But until it was discovered in food, concern about the chemical's potential health effects centered on workers who handled it.
In a roundabout way, the threat spurred manufacturers to work on new techniques that at least reduced the amounts of acrylamide. However, it's not as easy as simply playing with processing temperatures. Tests on coffee in Europe revealed that altering the roasting conditions cut acrylamide levels, but also reduced the level of antioxidants — healthful biocompounds that have helped coffee sales increase in recent years. As the queries continue, these most recent findings will pose a risk-benefit dilemma for manufacturers and consumers alike.