Last April Swedish scientists discovered high levels of a potentially cancer-causing chemical called acrylamide in wide range of starch-containing foods that are fried or baked, particularly french fries, potato chips and crackers. The announcement received worldwide publicity. But at the time, no one knew where the acrylamide came from, how it was formed, or, indeed, if there is a link between acrylamide in food and cancer. The findings were quickly confirmed by the British Food Standards Agency. Earlier this autumn the source of the acrylamide was identified independently by researchers at the University of Reading in England, Nestlé in Switzerland and Procter & Gamble in the United States. They showed that acrylamide is produced when asparagine, an amino acid abundant in cereals and grains, is heated above 100 degrees Centigrade (212 degrees Fahrenheit) with either of two sugars, glucose or 2-deoxyglucose.
Now Bruce Ganem, a professor in Cornell Universitys Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, has offered a more-detailed chemical explanation about how acrylamide is produced when starch-containing foods are fried or cooked at high temperatures. His theory is proposed in a letter, "Explaining acrylamides in food," in a recent issue of the journal Chemical and Engineering News (Dec. 2, 2002).
Acrylamide is a polymer that is widely used in the treatment of drinking water. It also is used in the manufacture of plastics. It was first evaluated as probably carcinogenic to humans in 1994 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But it was not known to occur in high levels in fried or baked foods before this years Swedish study.
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