I went to a coffee shop in LA the other day, and while I was waiting for my cup of Joe I spotted a fairly large sign about Prop 65, a “right to know” law that requires the State of California to maintain a list of chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive toxicity (such as birth defects or other reproductive harm). Businesses that knowingly expose patrons to such chemicals above certain levels are required by law to display warnings. In this case, the sign was about acrylamide, a substance found in coffee and baked goods sold in the store. I watched as others scanned the sign and expressed brief looks of concern or confusion. While nobody opted to cancel their order, those who took the time to read the warning did seem a bit unsettled. I imagine we’ll be hearing a lot more about acrylamide in the near future, not just in the Golden State, but nationwide. Here’s what you need to know:
For some time the Food and Drug Administration has been considering issuing guidelines on the acrylamide content in food. Acrylamide (pronounced ah-KRILL-uh-mide) is a substance formed in all baked, toasted, roasted and fried foods by a reaction between sugars (naturally occurring or added) and the amino acid asparagine. In a nutshell, it gives many of the cooked foods we love their brown color and tasty flavor, including not just French fries and potato chips, but also bread, breakfast cereals and yup, coffee.
The scary news is that the consumption of acrylamide has been linked to an increased risk of both heart disease and cancer, and a recent consumer study found that there is “virtually no awareness” of the substance among US consumers. So now that you know this what should you do? Here are four steps:
1) Don't panic. You can't undo the mountains of acrylamide you’ve already consumed. And remember, it’s a natural by-product of cooking rather than an easy to remove food additive, so even people who ‘eat clean’ consume it.
2) Eat more raw foods. Acrylamide forms from cooking at high temperatures (about 100 degrees or more) and steaming does not typically form acrylamide, so switch up your menus a bit, especially over the summer. Alternate grilled and sautéed veggies with garden salads and chilled veggie side dishes, and opt for steamed brown rice as your starch instead of roasted corn or potatoes. Wrap burgers in crisp lettuce leaves in place of buns, serve up more fresh fruit for dessert and snack time rather than cookies or baked goods, and trade in your second cup of coffee for a tall glass of H2O.
3) Eat more foods that offset the effects. A recent study found that natural substances in broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts fight heart disease by protecting the bends and branches in blood vessels, which tend to be the areas most prone to cholesterol build-up and inflammation. Those exact same foods also contain natural detoxers that deactivate cancer causing chemicals and stop the growth of existing cancer cells, meaning they offer dual protection against the effects of acrylamide.
4) Change the way you prepare can't-live-without foods. For example, one study found that pre-soaking potatoes for 30 minutes and two hours slashed acrylamide levels by up to 38 percent and 48 percent respectively. Another concluded that the addition of rosemary to dough prior to baking reduced acrylamide by up to 60 percent. Other tips: cook potatoes to a golden yellow rather than a golden brown color, and toast bread to the lightest acceptable shade.
Given the concern about acrylamide among researchers we’ll likely be hearing about even more ways to reduce its formation.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.