New research on acrylamide by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows the chemical occurs in a wide range of prepared foods. But medical research has failed to demonstrate a link between dietary acrylamide and several common cancers.
The dueling studies were released in late March.
Lab studies have shown that at high doses, acrylamide causes cancer and birth defects in lab animals, and is a neurotoxin to humans. But those human doses came from industrial exposure to the chemical, which is used in water treatment and manufacture of glues, paper and cosmetics.
Swedish scientists created an uproar in 2002 when they released results showing that acrylamide was present in more foods and higher concentrations than previously thought. The chemical is created when food ingredients are cooked at high temperatures, greater than 248 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, potatoes that are boiled won?t show measurable quantities of acrylamide, while french fries and potato chips will.
The FDA followed up the Swedish study and released an action plan in March, advocating yet more research to determine exactly how acrylamide molecules are formed, quantify the risks to humans, and develop alternatives for food processors and home cooks.
The FDA has tested more than 750 ready-to-eat food products for acrylamide. Products that scored higher tended to be fried, baked, grilled, roasted or toasted. Cocoa, coffee, snack foods, breakfast cereals, peanut butter and instant onion soup mix were among them. But so were olives, prune juice and canned chile con carne, and scientists weren?t sure why.
The FDA labeled the data ?exploratory,? and cautioned consumers not to use it to make food choices. The group continues to advocate ?a balanced diet ? low in trans and saturated fat and rich in high fiber grains, fruits and vegetables.?
Some scientists in the United Kingdom had suggested a link between acrylamide and the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto?s RoundUp), but FDA data shows high levels of acrylamide in some natural and organic products.
A study published in 2003 in the British Journal of Cancer ?found consistently a lack of an excess risk, or any convincing trend, of cancer of the bowel, bladder or kidney in high consumers of 14 different food items with a high or moderate acrylamide content.? Results of a breast cancer study involving 50,000 Swedish women turned up similar results, said Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist Lorelei Mucci, who led both studies. That data was announced at the American Chemical Society?s annual meeting in March. ?No one is saying this will cause an epidemic of cancer,? she said. In an earlier FDA study, the list of foods most likely to add measurable quantities of acrylamide to a typical diet included such American staples as breakfast cereal, potato chips, toast, french fries, cookies, soft bread and coffee.
That exposure assessment was performed by Donna Robie, and Michael DiNovi, of the Office of Food Additive Safety at the FDA?s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition. The scientists multiplied acrylamide levels of various foods by their typical serving size and the foods? likelihood of being consumed during a given time period. It was presented at an FDA committee meeting in February 2003.
FDA acting commissioner Lester Crawford, told that committee, ?At this point we simply don?t know what the actual human health risk of acrylamide might be at the low levels found in food.?
California faces a particular conundrum because of its Proposition 65, which requires a warning label or public placard whenever consumers are exposed to substances ?known to the state to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.? Acrylamide was added to the list in 1990 because of its industrial uses, with exposure of 0.2 micrograms or more per day requiring a public warning.
Lawsuits are flying, according to the Los Angeles Times, as attorneys sue fast-food chains whose french fries ranged, in FDA studies, from 117 parts per billion to 1,030 parts per billion of acrylamide.
?It?s possible you would have to label 45 percent of all food products, or maybe more,? said Richard Martin, vice president of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. ?Consumers are confused enough already.?
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