Acrylamide belongs to a class of chemicals that form advanced glycation end products, also known by their first letters as AGEs. They are a group of molecules that are formed when sugar attaches on protein when starchy foods such as potatoes and grains are cooked in the absence of water at very high temperatures. They do not form when food is cooked in water, and the higher the cooking temperature, the more acrylamide is formed.
Research in four countries is suggesting that French fries and potato chips may be a leading cause of cancer in the Western world. Scientists at the meeting of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization are very concerned about the very high levels of acrylamide in the food supply. Acrylamide is a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics. It was first discovered to be present in certain foods cooked at high temperatures as the result of work announced in Sweden in April 2002.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have concluded that acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory animals, but there are no studies of the relationship between acrylamide and cancer in humans. However, solid research shows that acrylamide can cause nerve damage in humans, such as loss of feeling, loss muscle control and tingling.
The Swedish research and subsequent studies in Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, have found that acrylamide levels in certain starch-based foods, such as potato chips, french fries, cookies, cereals and bread, were well above the level given in the World Health Organization’s Guideline Values for Drinking Water Quality. Potato chips contain 500 times the maximum allowable amounts of acrylamide, and French fries sold in fast food chains contain more than 100 times the maximal allowable amounts. Tortilla chips, breakfast cereals, breads, cookies, crackers, and other bakery products contain smaller but significant amounts of acrylamide.
Diabetics form advanced glycation products in their bodies because high blood sugar levels cause sugar to stick on the protein in cell membranes to form AGES, and it is these AGEs that cause the horrible side effects of diabetes, such as blindness, deafness, heart attacks, strokes and kidney damage. AGEs can damage every tissue in the body. HBA1C, the blood test doctors use to measure control of diabetes, actually measures this sugar bound to the protein on a person’s cells. AGEs may also cause cancers, aging of tissues, and arteriosclerosis by raising cholesterol and causing clotting and are associated with loss of kidney function, Alzheimer’s disease, thinning and wrinkling of skin and cataracts.
Exciting research from the University of Reading in England may eventually allow us to eat French fires and potato chips without being harmed by acrylamides (4). Deep frying at high temperature causes sugar in potatoes to stick to protein to form acrylamides. Donald Mottram showed that asparagine, only one of the 21 amino acids that form protein in humans, sticks to sugar. If this is true, it may be relatively simple to finding and use strains of potato with a low asparagine content, or genetically engineer potatoes or wheat that lacks asparagine. Then foods could be made from them that did not have asparagine available to form acrylamide.
Cooking with water prevents sugars from binding to proteins to form these poisonous chemicals. Since steamed and boiled vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruits are cooked with water, they do not contain significant amounts of advanced glycation products. This is another reason that you should eat your fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans — raw or cooked with water. We no longer recommend eating potato chips or French fries as a source of salt when you exercise, and we will avoid eating them ourselves.
1) Margareta Tomquist, Stockholm University , pres conference, 4/25/02.
2) Helen Vlassara, at the Picower Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y. presented to the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association in San Francisco June, 1996.
3) Raj, D Choudhury, TC Welbourne, , Levi. Advanced glycation end products: A nephrologist’s perspective. American Journal of Kidney Diseases, 2000, Vol 35, Iss 3, pp 365-380.
4) Nature, Vol 419, pp 448-449