A few days ago a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Elihu Berle, put acrylamide on the mainstream map by forcing California coffee shops – including Starbucks – to add a health warning about the carcinogenic risks of this chemical present in the coffee.
Next Wednesday, April 11, comes into force a regulation of the European Commission that requires implementing a series of measures to limit as much as possible the presence of acrylamide in food: because it is not only in the coffee, it is in potato chips and baby jars.
Acrylamide is a substance that can be formed in many ways, but one that is very common: when food is cooked or processed at temperatures above 120 degrees.
It is then that food-reducing sugars – those that break down more easily, such as potato starch and cereals, fructose or honey-containing products – and proteins react with each other in the heat, and give rise to this element. The higher the temperature and the lower the degree of humidity, the more acrylamide is produced.
It happens in all foods, although those rich in starch are those that have higher levels when fried and roasted. This is what happens with coffee during its roasting process, regardless of whether it is roasted or natural. Hence, the regulation puts a special focus on fried potatoes, bread in all its formats, biscuits, cookies, coffee and substitutes.
Have we been exposed to a carcinogenic substance?
Before alarms are triggered, it is important to clarify that these measures are based on the precautionary principle because, as the regulation itself explains, “in between 10% and 15%” of foods that have excess acrylamide can be reduced by application of good practices “.
“There is no doubt that this substance is carcinogenic in laboratory mice, but no one has been able to prove that the acrylamide that comes to humans through food have an impact on cancer, ” says Dr. Ricardo Cubedo, an oncologist at the IOB Institute of Oncology.
The measure is based on the precautionary principle: although it has not been proven that acrylamide is carcinogenic in people, it is “likely”, and also in 10% of cases, “easy to reduce”, according to the European Commission
In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers acrylamide as a probable carcinogen for humans, because, so far, it is not conclusive, after investigations carried out experiments in animals subjected to very high doses of acrylamide and whose results can be extrapolated to humans.
In addition, workers in industries that are exposed to higher levels of this substance – it may be by inhalation, in contact with the skin or through food – have not recorded a higher incidence of cancer than the rest of the population. The main source of exposure remains tobacco smoke.
The alarms jumped in 2002, when the Swedish Food Safety Agency revealed that acrylamide appeared not only in industrial processes, or in tobacco smoke, but also in food.
Since then, the World Health Organization and the rest of the international health institutions have begun to exercise caution.
“In 2007 and 2012, the European Agency for Food Safety (EFSA) established some guidelines to reduce their consumption through diet,” says Marhuenda.
According to this dietician-nutritionist, the levels of acrylamide in daily consumption are low enough to be considered dangerous.
“What EFSA does is what we commonly know as placing the plaster before making the wound, always proposing values as low as possible.”
Can I develop cancer if I eat a lot of chips?
“The minimum consumption stipulated for acrylamide to be related to the probability or the increased probability of cancer is 170 micrograms (0.17 milligrams) per kilo of body weight,” says Marhuenda. “In a person weighing 80 kilos, for example, that minimum dose would be 13,600 micrograms of acrylamide a day.” In addition, he points out, “not to reach this amount on a daily basis we will develop cancer directly, but there is an increase in risk.”
And we arrived? “It is complicated to consume that dose, to get an idea, the average coffee intake per person in Europe represents between 30% and 35% of the minimum amount of risk.”
A calculation: according to the levels of reference that from day 11 the manufacturers will have to comply as far as possible (see table below), so that a person of 80 kilos reaches that amount would have to eat something more than 27 kilos of chips a day.
On average, Spaniards are exposed to 0.53 micrograms of acrylamide per kilogram of body weight per day, according to a study that served as a doctoral thesis to the researcher at the University of Valencia Eva Molina Périz. According to Dr. Cubedo, “the half comes for the chips, one quarter for the coffee and the other quarter for the biscuits or the biscuits “.
In Spain, the bags of potatoes went beyond the limit
That despite the fact that in 2015, in Spain, almost one in five bags of these snacks exceeded the amounts of acrylamide recommended by the European Commission, as found in a study by the Institute of Science and Technology of Food and Nutrition (Ictan-CSIC) . Although it observed a positive evolution: an average of 1,484 micrograms per kilo of fried potato in 2004, 740 in 2009 and 630 micrograms in 2014.
The new European regulation does not establish maximum limits, but reference levels – for this product, 500 micrograms per kilo of potatoes – that must be met unless the manufacturer can justify its excess, for example, by the properties of the variety of potato used.
Kiss that potato chip goodbye
For years the food industry has been reducing the levels of acrylamide in its products, but as of Wednesday it won’t be with the typical small potato and toast that appears in some bags.
The regulation of the European Commission establishes among its measures that warnings must appear on the package. Messages on packagings for biscuits, bread slices and toasts will now be clearer.
In addition, bread, chips, puff pastry dough, pizzas and all those products that contain ingredients such as potato or starch will be accompanied by recommendations to cook them at home, reducing the risk.
Despite the new measures of the European Commission and the low exposure to acrylamide, it is advised to reduce or avoid the consumption of this substance: “Potato chips, snacks, cookies, some cereals, bread crunch, and others.
If we want to reduce the levels of acrylamide in the ingestion we must avoid cooking at high temperatures these particular foods, and, in general, we have to always cook in a non-aggressive way “.