Acrylamide – a process contaminant

At the end of April 2002 the Swedish National Food Administration informed the public about the detection of acrylamide, which had been found in various starchy foods such as cereals, potato products and various baked goods - occasionally even in high concentrations. Previously the substance had chiefly been known as a starting material used in plastic production (polyacrylamide).

ifp Institut für Produktqualität offers the analysis of acrylamide in foods, along with a wide range of other contaminants. Quantitative determination of the substance is done by high-performance liquid chromatography / tandem quadrupole (HPLC-MS/MS).

Formation of acrylamide

So far it is assumed that acrylamide forms as a result of the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars (Maillard reaction) that occurs in the course of thermal processes, such as deep-frying, frying, baking and roasting. The amino acid asparagine is the major starting substance in this process. It is contained mainly in potatoes and cereals. Any sugars contained, such as fructose and glucose, add to the formation of acrylamide. Large amounts of acrylamide form especially in the process of dry-heating potato and cereal products to more than 180 °C.

What are the risks of acrylamide?

The carcinogenic effect of acrylamide was shown both in vitro (in mammalian cell cultures) and in vivo (animal testing). The genotoxic effects of acrylamide include chiefly hereditary mutations in the genetic material (mutations of the chromosomes). Acrylamide has therefore been classified as mutagenic and as carcinogenic. However, maximum levels for acrylamide in food have not yet been defined, since scientific findings on the effects of acrylamide on human health remain limited. 

The German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) collects and updates acrylamide signal values each year. This minimising concept pursues the stepwise decrease of acrylamide levels based on the ALARA principle (as low as reasonably achievable). The BVL collects analytical results on acrylamide levels in food from official food surveillance laboratories and from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). Affected foods are then assigned to defined food groups. The signal value of a food group is the acrylamide concentration that is fallen short of by 90 % of the samples analysed.

In January 2011 the EU Commission issued a recommendation on investigations into the levels of acrylamide in food that specifies indicative values that are comparable to the German signal values. These indicative values apply instead of the German values. So far there are no European indicative values for “lebkuchen” (German type of gingerbread), potato fritters or coffee substitute, so in these cases the German maximum levels continue to apply.