Food safety

Frequently asked questions - acrylamide in food


Questions related to cancer

6. What is the risk of me getting cancer from acrylamide? Now? Longer-term? Which type of cancer?

The theoretical models to predict whether cancer would develop in humans as a result of ingesting acrylamide in food are not reliable enough to develop firm conclusions about risk. When investigated in rats, acrylamide has a similar potency to certain other well-known carcinogens formed through cooking. For humans, the relative potencies of cancer-causing agents in food are not known. However, levels of acrylamide in the diet are likely to be higher than those of other known carcinogens.

Prolonged exposure to acrylamide has caused a range of tumours in animal tests (rats and mice), including in the adrenal glands and testes. In humans, studies of workers exposed to acrylamide through air and contact with their skin found no evidence of cancer. However, such human evidence is often difficult to obtain. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) under WHO has classified acrylamide as "probably carcinogenic to humans" on the basis of the evidence from animal studies.

7. Is it accurate to say that something is a risk for humans if the only cancer studies have been done on rats (and other animals)?

There are examples of substances causing cancer in animals, where it has been concluded that this is not relevant to humans. However, a number of substances causing cancer in animals do also cause cancer in humans. Therefore, it is established practice to assume that an animal carcinogen is potentially carcinogenic to humans unless proven otherwise. Such proof – which does not exist for acrylamide - could be that the mechanism by which the substance causes animal tumours is not relevant to humans.

8. Is any level of acrylamide in food acceptable?

Acrylamide belongs to the group of chemicals thought to have no reliably identifiable ‘threshold’ of effects, meaning that very low concentrations will also result in very low risks, but not in zero risk: some risk is always present when the chemical is ingested. However, for these carcinogens, risk is thought to increase with increasing exposure.

What constitutes a tolerable level of risk for acrylamide is not just a scientific question, since a number of other considerations are necessary to define the acceptability of risk to a given society.

Very low risks (even of cancer), such as those that are less than one in one million, are considered to be acceptable to some consumers. To others this is unacceptable. The important pre-requisite for any decision is, however a clear picture of the nature and level of the risk, as well as the potential for lowering this level. This clear picture does not exist for acrylamide at present.

9. Is it true that there are carcinogens in everything we eat?

No. Although many foods might contain some potentially carcinogenic elements, the effect on human health is often not known with any great degree of certainty. Also carcinogens vary in potency, and research can assist in identifying those substances of greatest concern. The potential risks posed by weakly carcinogenic substances occurring in food should be managed in an appropriate manner but often need to be accepted or tolerated by society.

10. Does food represent the greatest source of acrylamide or are there other sources?

The levels of acrylamide found in some foods are much higher than the levels recommended for drinking-water, or levels expected to occur as a result of contact between food and food packaging (from paper) or use of cosmetics. However, exposure from smoking cigarettes may be significant.

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