Easy Ways to Avoid (Cancer Causing) Acrylamide in Home Cooking

by Sarah healthy fatsComments: 23

acrylamide in home cooking

The realization that plenty of traditional fats in the diet is not dangerous and is, in fact, incredibly necessary for vibrant health can sometimes lead to the conclusion that fried foods are fine to eat on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Frying and even baking and broiling carbohydrates creates a carcinogenic chemical called acrylamide in the food. This is the case even if healthy, high heat fats like tallow, lard, ghee or coconut oil are used.

The good news is that when traditional cooking methods are followed, the dangerous creation of acrylamide in your food can be avoided!

What Exactly is Acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a chemical compound that is white, odorless and soluble in water. It is used in numerous factory processes such as making paper, dyes, and plastics. It is used to treat both drinking water and wastewater. Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke.

In 2002, Swedish researchers discovered high levels of acrylamides in starchy foods as this chemical is formed when carbohydrates are cooked at temperatures above 250 F/121 C.  The foods highest in acrylamide after cooking or roasting include potatoes, grains, and coffee (1). What’s most important to realize is that the longer and higher you cook starchy foods at temperatures above 250 F/121 C, the more acrylamide is produced.

Acylamide in the Scientific Literature

Animal studies on acrylamide are the most worrisome to date. Rats and mice fed high levels of the substance in their drinking water were found by researchers to be at increased risk for several types of cancer. In people, studies on acrylamide in the diet have produced mixed results for some types of cancer including kidney, endometrial, and ovarian. Exposure to high levels of acrylamide in the workplace via inhalation or the skin has been shown to cause nerve damage, which can lead to numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, bladder problems, in addition to other symptoms.

The limitation of the human studies on acrylamide in the diet thus far is that many of them relied on food questionnaires which people filled out every couple of years that may not have accounted for all dietary sources of acrylamide. Moreover, food questionnaires are notorious for not being entirely accurate as people may not clearly remember (or be willing to admit) what they have been eating over time.

While more human studies need to be conducted on the effect of acrylamide on health, at the present time, caution should be exercised given that it definitely does produce cancer in animals. Here’s what various leading government agencies have to say on the subject:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released a consumer warning on acrylamide to limit exposure given that it has been found to be carcinogenic in animals (2).
  • CDC scientists found measurable levels of acrylamide in the blood of 99.9% of the U.S. population. Smokers have nearly twice the levels of acrylamide in their blood as nonsmokers (3).
  • The World Health Organication (WHO) classifies acrylamide as a probable human carcinogen. This is based on data showing it can increase the risk of some types of cancer in lab animals. The WHO has not reviewed its position on acrylamide since 1997, and at that time, acrylamide was not known to be found in so many starchy foods at such high levels (4).
  •  The National Toxicology Program (NTP) concluded in its 2011 Report on Carcinogens that acrylamide is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” based on the studies in lab animals (5).
  •  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), an electronic database that contains information on human health effects from exposure to various substances in the environment. The EPA classifies acrylamide as “likely to be a carcinogen to humans” based on studies in lab animals (6).

The Good News: Traditional Cooking Minimizes Acrylamide in Food!

If all this data on acrylamide has you depressed, cheer up! Knowledge of traditional diet not only provides the information about which healthy fats to cook with, but also how to safely prepare them!

When I cook, even fry, starchy foods in our home, I have little concern for acrylamides. The trick is that you need to know how to prepare carbohydrate foods so that the chemical is minimized so that you don’t get too much on a consistent basis. Obviously, traditional cultures were exposed to at least some acrylamide too and did just fine. Native American cultures smoked tobacco, for example, so at the very least, they were getting regular exposure this way.

As a result, minimization of exposure is the key without getting extreme to the point where you never eat a fried food ever again. This just isn’t realistic.

Ways to Minimize Acrylamide in your Home Cooking

When I first started learning methods for reducing acrylamide in cooked foods, it was in conjunction with the research I was doing for my first book Get Your Fats Straight.

My husband had an “aha” moment one evening when we were discussing the dangers of acrylamides in the diet given how many starchy, snacky foods Americans seem to be eating on a daily basis. For many Westerners, these types of foods serve as the mainstay of the diet. He mentioned that his mother, who is an expert in traditional cooking and raised her family on these methods, used to always blanch potatoes briefly in boiling water prior to frying or roasting them. As it turns out, this is exactly the method recommended by the National Cancer Institute to minimize acrylamide production in a food before you cook it!

Obviously, the most important thing to know when avoiding acrylamides in the diet is to limit consumption of snacky, starchy foods that you buy at the store. Even if these foods are organic, they are made in a factory with the typical high heat, high pressure processing in most cases. Since acrylamide is formed from natural chemicals in food during cooking, this type of factory process will produce acrylamide levels in cooked organic foods that are likely similar to those in cooked nonorganic foods.

If you want to enjoy french fries, be sure to make them at home as much as possible and be sure to blanch those potatoes first before immersing in the hot oil! Does this mean you should never eat fries in a restaurant? Not necessarily, just understand that the more you do this, the higher your acrylamide exposure.

Boiling potatoes or other starchy foods, decreasing cooking time and drying foods in a hot air oven after cooking have also been shown via research to decrease the acrylamide content of some foods (7).  Make that food thermometer your friend! This is the kitchen thermometer I use and purchased for about $10. I use it all the time to keep cooking temperatures as low as possible in my kitchen.

Here are some very helpful additional tips for minimizing acrylamides in your cooking as suggested by the American Cancer Society:

  • For potatoes, frying causes the highest acrylamide formation. Roasting potato pieces causes less acrylamide formation, followed by baking whole potatoes. Boiling potatoes and microwaving whole potatoes with skin on does not produce acrylamide.
  • If blanching the potatoes isn’t a good option for you prior to cooking, you can also just soak raw potato slices in water for 15 to 30 minutes before frying or roasting to reduce acrylamide formation when the potatoes are cooked. Be sure to drain and blot dry the soaked potatoes before cooking for safety reasons to prevent splattering or fires.
  • Beware! Potatoes should never be stored in the refrigerator as this can result in increased acrylamide during cooking. Potatoes are best stored in a dark, cool place such as a closet or a pantry to prevent sprouting. Sprouted potatoes contain solanine, a poison found in nightshade vegetables that can bring on gastrointestinal or neurological symptoms when ingested.
  • Acrylamide levels tend to rise when cooking occurs for longer periods and/or at higher temperatures. Taking care to cook cut potato products, such as frozen French fries or potato slices, to a golden yellow color rather than a medium to dark brown color helps reduce the formation of acrylamide considerably.
  • Be sure to toast bread to a light brown color rather than a medium or dark brown color. Very brown toasted areas contain the most acrylamide. Maybe our kids have the right idea by not eating the crusts, which tend to be the toastiest parts of the bread!
  • Acrylamide forms in coffee when coffee beans are roasted, not when coffee is brewed at home or in a restaurant. So far, scientists have not found good ways to reduce acrylamide formation in roasted coffee beans.

On a side note, I was thrilled to learn recently that Burger Monger, my favorite burger joint, not only uses healthy tallow for frying its french fries instead of unhealthy, rancid vegetable oils (it doesn’t matter if they are hydrogenated or not .. they are still unhealthy!), but also goes the extra mile to blanch them beforehand to minimize acrylamide formation. In the image below is the info proudly displayed at Burger Monger restaurants to inform customers of the traditional cooking approach used.

burger monger blanches fries to minimize acrylamides!

 

Healthy home cooking doesn’t just involve selecting the right foods, it also involves storing and preparing them properly.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

 

Sources and More Information

National Cancer Institute: Acrylamide in Food

American Cancer Society: Acrylamide

Baked Chips as Bad or Worse than Fried?

Low Carb Coconut Chips

Low Carb Fried Chicken

Comments (23)

  • Suzie

    Great article Sarah. Thanks for sharing what you’ve discovered.

    September 1st, 2015 2:30 am Reply
  • GJ

    I don’t understand. How do you get a crispy carb. Type vege baked in an oven at 250*
    Even if you do blanch it 1st. Seems like it would just get hot never crisp.

    August 27th, 2015 7:24 pm Reply
  • Laura

    Hi Sarah,
    I would like to know your opinon on reusing the oil or fat after frying, And if it should be filtered…?
    If reusing oil has any influence on acrilamide content….

    August 16th, 2015 5:11 am Reply
  • Lisa

    What about popcorn? What’s the best way to pop? I love using coconut and olive oil.

    July 15th, 2015 1:04 pm Reply
  • Carrie H

    I usually par cook french fries in low temp oil, take them out and let them cool, then fry at high heat to get crispy. Would the blanch in low temp oil take the place of blanching in water?

    July 15th, 2015 1:28 am Reply
  • sheila

    Does this go for sweet potato as well? I am guessing since they are also starchy.

    July 14th, 2015 8:39 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes

      July 14th, 2015 8:56 pm Reply
  • Clarissa

    So one of my weekly meals is a whole chicken that I roast on a bed of cut potatoes, onions and sweet potatoes. I cut the veggies, coat in coconut oil or olive oil, add seasoning and then place the season chicken on top. I roast at 450 for 1 hour and 20 min. Sometimes the potatoes are a little overdone but that’s the only way to ensure the 5 lb. chicken is fully cooked. The potatoes are delicious with the chicken fat so I like cooking them together. I imagine that blanching the potatoes before had would mean way over cooked potatoes.
    Should I just cut the potatoes and soak them first?

    July 14th, 2015 3:50 pm Reply
  • Therese

    You don’t mention steaming here, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read this minimizes acrylamides to the same extent as boiling. Yes? I tend to steam all my potatoes and then add my oils and spices afterwards.

    July 12th, 2015 4:19 pm Reply
  • Brandee

    We love to fry hand cut organic fries in tallow, but I couldn’t tell from this post if we should blanch the whole potato before cutting into fries or blanch the cut fries? Do I understand correctly that they should cool completely before frying after they are blanched?

    July 12th, 2015 3:40 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Blanch the cut fries so that all the starchy surfaces that will be fried are included. You don’t need to cool before frying.

      July 12th, 2015 8:44 pm Reply
  • Darla

    Great article, thank you Sarah!

    July 11th, 2015 10:13 am Reply
  • Niki

    Thank you for the article. This is my first time reading about this! I typically have a large baked sweet potato (1 to 2 times) during the week as my lunch. I bake them for about 50-60 min in a 400 degree oven which according to the article sounds like it would be bad. Am I right in understanding I should blanch the sweet potato for 15-30 min before putting it in the oven? Does it need anything else added like ACV?

    July 8th, 2015 10:22 am Reply
  • Helen

    Thanks so much Sarah for these timely reminders. Exactly the way my mother does chips and roast potatoes. Sometimes I skip boiling /blanching due to lack of time. I’m now going to boil EVERYTIME.

    Do you know anything about blanching veg before freezing? My mothers says not to freeze raw veg even to be cooked at a later time, but to blanch for a few minutes prior to freezing, is this for bacteria or something else? it always seems like extra work to me but perhaps there is a good reason…

    Helen

    July 8th, 2015 4:57 am Reply
  • Debra

    Hi Sarah
    From what I understand its the starch in the potatoes that is the causes the trouble, place peeled potatoes in a pot of cold water for a few hours it will remove a lot of the starch then par boil before frying, even better still place in fridge after par boiling for the next day but this takes a bit more planing.

    July 7th, 2015 9:06 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes, the article mentions that soaking in water for 15-30 minutes before cooking will also reduce acrylamides forming when the potatoes are cooked. You don’t need to do it for a few hours even. My mother used to always do this!

      July 7th, 2015 9:38 pm Reply
  • Caitie

    My Dutch grandmother always made the BEST fried potatoes! She used leftover boiled potatoes that she “bloomed” in the pan to remove the excess water. (To “bloom” she would just drain the potatoes then put them back in the pot on the hot stove and toss around for a few minutes to dry the potatoes out.) She serves the potatoes with gravy for supper, and any leftovers get fried the next day. My grandmother is very adamant that the potatoes are COLD before you try to fry them…
    Thank you for the very interesting article!

    July 7th, 2015 6:44 pm Reply
  • Suzanne

    What a valuable article! I will pass this on to our readers as they are trying to avoid chemicals that are harmful. The scary part is that children love french fries! Thank you for the great tip!

    July 7th, 2015 3:03 pm Reply
  • Linndsey

    so what about frozen pre cooked chips like oven chips or french fries??? How can you blanch them beforehand?

    July 7th, 2015 11:39 am Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Unless they were blanched at the factory first before cooking (which is highly doubtful!), then I wouldn’t buy precooked carbohydrates that you intend to fry.

      July 7th, 2015 11:51 am Reply
  • Jean finch

    Hi Sarah,
    I buy organic Colombian coffee beans, roasted then I grind at home and drip through unbleached filter. Will that cause a problem?

    July 7th, 2015 10:59 am Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      Most of the acrylamide would be removed during your home brewing from what I understand from the research. Just don’t buy instant coffee or other cheaply produced coffees … also note that a regular coffee habit has other health dangers such as whacking your adrenals to name one of but a few.

      July 7th, 2015 12:01 pm Reply

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