Eating would be so boring without the FDA to issue dire warnings about all your favorite foods. The subject of this week's paranoia? Acrylamide, a chemical that develops during the high-temperature cooking of certain foods, namely potato products like french fries and potato chips; cereal-based grains such as cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals and toasted bread; and coffee. Basically, all of the good stuff.
Scientists announced the discovery of acrylamide in foods in 2002 and in 2010 the WHO/FAO agreed the chemical "may be a human health concern." Namely, high doses of the substance were found to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and scientists are reasonably sure the same could be true for humans. The science: "Acrylamide forms in foods from a chemical reaction between asparagine, an amino acid, and reducing sugars such as glucose and fructose," according to the agency's new guidelines. "This reaction is part of the Maillard reaction, which leads to color, flavor, and aroma changes in cooked foods."
The Maillard reaction, touted by every chef from the Food Network to the culinary greats, is one of the main techniques employed to deepen and enhance flavors in cooked foods. In its 37-page report [pdf], the agency specifically calls out frozen french fries, especially if you're fond of the tiny, almost-burned bits at the bottom of your fast food bag; robusta coffee beans, which have higher acrylamide levels than arabica; and well-toasted breads and cereals as primary sources of acrylamide exposure in adults.
John LaPuma, the head of Chef Clinic in California who's also a chef and a physician, defends his beloved browned foods to the WSJ, claiming the "amount of acrylamide you need to cause cancer in people is astronomical."
The agency hasn't called for a ban on the substance, which also shows up in cigarette smoke, plastics, grouts and some cosmetics, but they're supplying information to "help growers, manufacturers, and food service operators reduce acrylamide in certain foods." So what does this mean for your Toasted Lagers and five-cup-a-day light roast habit? Just cut french fries, toast and coffee out of your diet altogether. Yep, that oughta do it.