Acrylamide is the industrially useful but toxic chemical that reared its ugly head among our potato chips and fries in 2002, when Swedish food chemists first thought to look for it in foods. Acrylamide is known to cause cancer and other illnesses in animals, and nerve damage in humans. It's suspected to be a human carcinogen as well. Acrylamide concentrations in drinking water are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Swedish chemists found food levels hundreds of times higher than the EPA limit.
Since 2002, we've learned a lot about acrylamide in food. It's formed in both food manufacturing and in our kitchens during the heating of carbohydrate-rich foods (potatoes, grains and their products) at temperatures high enough to cause browning and the development of the desirable flavors typical of browned foods (above about 250 degrees F, 120 degrees C). It arises from the reaction of a particular amino acid, asparagine (the major amino acid in potatoes), with glucose and other sugars. Among the foods that contribute most to our daily intake of acrylamide are french fries and potato chips, breakfast cereals, cookies, and coffee. Breads, toast, pies and cakes, and corn snacks are also significant sources. Recently acrylamide was even detected in Japanese green teas, which contain asparagine and are finished by roasting at 250-280 degrees F, 120-140 degrees C.
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