CSPI says companies should reduce levels of known carcinogen

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should require food manufacturers to limit the amount of acrylamide in their products, says the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI petitioned the agency to set “interim acceptable levels” for the chemical, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin that forms when certain carbohydrate-rich foods are cooked at very high temperatures.

FDA’s tests of different categories of food found wide brand-to-brand differences in acrylamide levels. For instance, acrylamide levels in 12 brands of frozen French fries (before being cooked at home) varied from 20 parts per billion (ppb) to 218 ppb. CSPI told the FDA that the median level of acrylamide observed in a category of food—77 ppb in the case of frozen French fries—should be set as an interim acceptable level. Manufacturers producing fries at the higher levels should be required to reduce them to 77 ppb or less.

“Acrylamide is a powerful carcinogen and is definitely something one wants less of in food,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson at a Washington, D.C., news conference. “Clearly, some food processors are able to make food with much less acrylamide than others. All we ask is that FDA require those manufacturers that are at the high end of the scale to bring their acrylamide levels down to that of many of their competitors.”

Since Swedish scientists first discovered acrylamide in food last year, other national governments, the FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO), and food companies have measured acrylamide levels in a wide variety of foods and begun to investigate ways to reduce levels of the chemical. Researchers earlier this year found that acrylamide is formed when glucose reacts at high temperatures with asparagine, an amino acid. Potato chips, french fries, and coffee—which is roasted before being brewed—are among the biggest sources of acrylamide in the average American diet.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the FDA have already determined safe levels for acrylamide in water and food. Because a flocculant made from acrylamide is sometimes used in the treatment of drinking water EPA requires water suppliers to limit acrylamide to less than 0.5 ppb. And, in June 2002, the FDA determined that 12 micrograms of acrylamide per person per day is safe in terms of the nervous system. CSPI estimates that the average American takes in about 36 micrograms—an amount three times higher than the safe limit.

“No one is recommending that people eat less whole wheat bread or breakfast cereals,” Jacobson said. “But consumers are well advised to eat less of those foods that have the most acrylamide and that are least nutritious anyway, like potato chips, French fries, and coffee. Also, consumers should avoid overcooking foods like toast and oven-baked French fries.”

In its petition, CSPI estimated that acrylamide in foods may account for roughly several thousand cancers per year in the U.S., although the amount could be higher or lower depending on the difference in acrylamide’s potency between animals and humans.

“Acrylamide probably causes on the order of a thousand new cases of cancer per year in the United States, perhaps as many as several thousand. That’s certainly not as many cases as tobacco, but certainly enough to warrant the FDA’s taking action to reduce acrylamide in food,” said Dale Hattis, Ph.D., an risk-assessment expert at Clark University who joined Jacobson at the news conference. Hattis is one of seven experts in environmental health and toxicology who wrote FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan in support of CSPI’s petition.

The FDA also found low levels of acrylamide in baby foods and infant formulas. CSPI said that because those foods make up a large part of infant diets, and because infants may be more susceptible to the carcinogenic or neurotoxic effects of acrylamide, CSPI urged the FDA to set a “particularly protective” limit on acrylamide in those products, perhaps down to undetectable levels.

FDA-tested foods that had the highest levels of acrylamide in their categories include Pringles Sweet Mesquite BBQ Flavored Potato Crisps, Folgers Classic Roast coffee, Wheatena Toasted Wheat Cereal, and Ore Ida Crispers.

The CSPI petition is the first U.S. proposal to require food companies to reduce acrylamide in foods.