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Acrylamide: Made By Man And Nature

When environmentalists and others worry about toxic contamination in the foods they eat and the world they live in they normally consider only the contamination that comes from human activities. Acrylamide is a white, odorless, crystalline solid chemical that is used to make polyacrylamide materials that are used to remove particles and impurities from drinking water; glue; paper; cosmetics; dam foundations; tobacco smoke; and grout (Acrylamide, 2009; Frequently Asked Questions - Acrylamide in Food, 2010; Acrylamide and Proposition 65, 2005). Acrylamide is also called any of the following names: “acrylamide monomer, 2-Propenamide, acrylic amide, propenoic acid amide, ethylene carboxamide, vinyl amide, Amresco, Acryl-40, [and] Acrylagel” (Acrylamide, 2009). As a man-made chemical that is found in so many products and put into such great contact with drinking water and soil acrylamide easily and frequently enters the human body and that of animals that are often consumed by humans and other animals (Acrylamide, 2009). Acrylamide dissolves easily in water, quickly travels through water and leaches into the soil; but it does biodegrade within a matter of weeks so it does not remain in land or water sources for extended periods unless those areas are re-contaminated (Acrylamide, 2009).

The man-made version of acrylamide, however, is not the only one human beings need to worry about. Although man began making acrylamide in 1949 Swedish scientists confirmed in 2002 that certain foods, when cooked at high temperatures, naturally form acrylamide and humans then directly ingest the chemical (Acrylamide: Fried Food's Unwelcome Ingredient, 2009). The foods that make acrylamide when cooked at high temperatures (meaning anything above 248 degrees Fahrenheit) are those that have the following characteristics: “a naturally occurring amino acid called asparagine, a naturally occurring sugar like glucose, and high cooking temperatures” (Acrylamide: Fried Food's Unwelcome Ingredient, 2009; Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk, 2008). The process through which acrylamide occurs in food begins when the amino acid asparagine, a protein, exists in the presence of certain sugars (Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk, 2008). Once heat is applied through baking, broiling, roasting, or frying to the asparagine it reacts with the sugars to form acrylamide (Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk, 2008). However, both boiling and microwaving have been found less likely to produce acrylamide in these same foods and the time a food is exposed to high temperatures can also increase its concentration (Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk, 2008).

Roasted asparagus, French fries, potato chips, and other fried or roasted starchy vegetables are believed to have high levels of acrylamide. However, scientists recently found acrylamide in dried fruits, particularly pears and prunes, and determined that the storage methods used for potatoes and the types of potatoes cooked also impacts the level of acrylamide found in food (Acrylamide: Fried Food's Unwelcome Ingredient, 2009). Because it is naturally found in foods, or appears in foods without the direct introduction by man, this man-made chemical can also be considered an organically occurring chemical.

Whether man-made or naturally resulting, however, acrylamide is harmful. Acrylamide is known to cause cancer (Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk, 2008). When high levels of acrylamide are released into the air, as they are when the chemical is manufactured or used in a process (such as coal mining or water cleansing), those who breath it have been found to develop neurological damage (Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk, 2008). The United Kingdom's Environment Agency indicates that acrylamide can not only cause cancer but also genetic damage and that excessive exposure can affect the reproductive system, eyes, brain, and skin (Acrylamide, 2009). The Canadian government has listed the chemical as a threat to human health, but has not indicated any specific concerns (Acrylamide: Fried Food's Unwelcome Ingredient, 2009). The World Health Organization also indicates that acrylamide “is known to cause cancer in animals [and to be] toxic to the nervous system of both animals and humans” (Frequently Asked Questions - Acrylamide in Food, 2010).

Although the use of acrylamide in grout, dams, water purification, paper, and plastics can easily be done away with and substitute products used, the fact remains that because the chemical appears naturally in foods it will still impact human life and health (Frequently Asked Questions - Acrylamide in Food, 2010). The focus on chemical contamination and exposure has always focused on man-made harms, but acrylamide's danger is naturally occurring and was only discovered first in 2002. This means that there has been little time to study its development and find ways to prevent it from harming people. Further, as the information known about the harms of acrylamide has focused on smoking and its use in industrial work, more studies need to be performed before the full risk of this contaminant can be properly identified. However, because of the fact that paper and plastic waste contain this chemical, and it is easily broken down in water and soil, the use of acrylamide in those products must stop to prevent further contamination of the food chain.

Habits are hard to break, but some habits must be broken. There are many alternative means to purify water and create paper and plastic products. Manufacturers and others need to focus on alternative means of achieving their goals without reliance on acrylamide. Scientists, however, need to better understand the development of acrylamide in not only cooked foods but also dried foods and how they interact with animals and humans to prevent harms from occurring. Further, leaching of this chemical into the environment can only increase its consumption and must be stopped.


Acrylamide. (2009). The Environment Agency, United Kingdom. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Acrylamide and Proposition 65. (2008). California Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Acrylamide: Fried Food's Unwelcome Ingredient. (2009). Canadian Broadcasting Company. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Acrylamide in Food and Cancer Risk. (2008). National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Frequently Asked Questions - Acrylamide in Food. (2010). World Health Organization. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Miller, G. & Spoolman, S., (2009). Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions (16th ed.). Brooks/Cole: Belmont, CA.

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