By Dr. Mercola
Approximately 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is spent on processed foods, and food marketers do a masterful job at making it seem like fast foods and junk foods are the obvious choice.
Some even manage to make you believe such foods are a healthy option. But not only are these processed foods “dead” and devoid of any natural nutrition, they can also be loaded with potentially carcinogenic substances.
Just over a decade ago, researchers discovered that a cancer-causing and potentially neurotoxic chemical called acrylamide is created when carbohydrate-rich foods are cooked at high temperatures, whether baked, fried, roasted, grilled or toasted.
The chemical is formed from a reaction between sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) during high-temperature cooking. The answer, of course, is to limit or eliminate processed foods and increase the amount of whole, raw foods in your diet. I typically aim for 80-85 percent raw food in my own diet.
Acrylamide May Be a Primary Hazard of Processed Food
Acrylamide can form in many foods cooked or processed at temperatures above 212°F (100°C), but carbohydrate-rich foods are the most vulnerable to this heat-induced byproduct. As a general rule, the chemical is formed when food is heated enough to produce a fairly dry and “browned” surface. Hence, it can be found in:
- Potatoes: chips, French fries and other roasted or fried potato foods
- Grains: bread crust, toast, crisp bread, roasted breakfast cereals and various processed snacks
- Coffee; roasted coffee beans and ground coffee powder. Surprisingly, coffee substitutes based on chicory actually contains 2-3 times more acrylamide than real coffee
Acrylamide is not the only hazard associated with heat-processed foods, however. The three-year long EU project known as Heat-Generated Food Toxicants1 (HEATOX), identified more than 800 heat-induced compounds in food, 52 of which are potential carcinogens... For example, the high heat of grilling reacts with proteins in red meat, poultry, and fish, creating heterocyclic amines, which have also been linked to cancer.
Humans are not the only victims here. As discussed by holistic veterinarian Dr. Barbara Royal, pet foods also contain acrylamide and heterocyclic amines, courtesy of commercial pet food processing methods.
Exposure to Acrylamide Increases Your Cancer Risk
Animal studies have shown that exposure to acrylamide increases the risk of several types of cancer, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer considers acrylamide a "probable human carcinogen." According to a 1988 study2:
“The data show that acrylamide is capable of inducing genotoxic, carcinogenic, developmental, and reproductive effects in tested organisms. Thus, acrylamide may pose more than a neurotoxic health hazard to exposed humans.
Acrylamide is a small organic molecule with very high water solubility. These properties probably facilitate its rapid absorption and distribution throughout the body. After absorption, acrylamide is rapidly metabolized, primarily by glutathione conjugation, and the majority of applied material is excreted within 24 hours... Acrylamide can bind to DNA... which has implications for its genotoxic and carcinogenic potential.”
A study3 published in 2007 linked higher dietary acrylamide intake with an increased risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer in postmenopausal women, particularly among non-smokers. It has also been linked to nerve damage and other neurotoxic effects, including neurological problems in workers handling the substance.
While the EPA regulates acrylamide in drinking water and the FDA regulates the amount of acrylamide residue in materials that may come in contact with food, they do not currently have any guidelines limiting the chemical in food itself.
How Much Acrylamide Are You Getting from Your Diet?
In drinking water, the federal limit for acrylamide is 0.5 parts per billion, or about 0.12 micrograms in an eight-ounce glass of water. However, a six-ounce serving of French fries can contain 60 micrograms of acrylamide—about 500 times the allowable limit! A 2002 food analysis published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry4, found moderate levels of acrylamide (5−50 μg/kg) in heated protein-rich foods and higher levels (150−4,000 μg/kg) in carbohydrate-rich foods. Unheated or boiled foods showed undetectable levels (<5 μg/kg) of acrylamide, leading the researchers to conclude:
"Consumption habits indicate that the acrylamide levels in the studied heated foods could lead to a daily intake of a few tens of micrograms."
Potato chips in particular are notoriously high in this dangerous chemical. So high, in fact, that in 2005 the state of California actually sued potato chip makers for failing to warn California consumers about the health risks of acrylamide in their products. A settlement was reached in 20085 when Frito-Lay and several other potato chip makers agreed to reduce the acrylamide levels in their chips to 275 parts per billion (ppb) by 2011, which is low enough to avoid needing a cancer warning label.
Still, that’s a far cry from the allowable limit of 0.5 ppb in drinking water!
The 2005 report6 "How Potato Chips Stack Up: Levels of Cancer-Causing Acrylamide in Popular Brands of Potato Chips," issued by the California-based Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), spelled out the dangers of this popular snack. According to their analysis, ALL potato chip products tested exceeded the legal limit of acrylamide by a minimum of 39 times, and as much as 910 times! Interestingly, baked chips, which are often touted as a healthier chip, can contain more than three times the level of acrylamide in regular chips, according to US Food and Drug Administration data7.
How to Avoid Heat-Induced Toxins in Your Diet
Acrylamide levels vary greatly among processed foods, even among different batches of the same food item. The chemical has so far only been found in foods heated above 250 F/120 C, which includes most processed foods. Basing your diet on whole foods, with the majority or a significant portion eaten raw or lightly cooked is therefore one of the best ways to avoid this cancer-causing cooking byproduct. Aside from creating potentially toxic byproducts, high heat also depletes the food of valuable micronutrients, which is another reason for eating raw or slow cooked food as possible.
Another important aspect of raw foods is the energetic aspect. Dr. Johanna Budwig from Germany has stated that live foods are electron rich and act as high-powered electron donors and “solar resonance fields” to attract, store, and conduct the sun's energy in your body. The greater your body’s store of light energy, the more energy you’ll have available for healing and the maintenance of optimal health. For the times when you do cook your food, keep the following tips in mind:
- Frying, baking and broiling appear to be the worst offenders, while boiling or steaming appear to be safer
- Hotter cooking temps increase acrylamide
- Soaking raw potatoes in water for 15-30 minutes prior to roasting may help reduce acrylamide formation during cooking
- The darker brown the food, the more acrylamide it contains (for instance, dark brown toast compared to light brown toast)
- Acrylamide is found primarily in plant-based foods, such as potatoes and grain products (not typically in meat, dairy or seafood)
According to the findings by the HEATOX project, you're far less likely to ingest dangerous levels of acrylamide when you eat home-cooked foods compared to industrially or restaurant-prepared foods. And when you do eat at home, the best advice they could give was to avoid overcooking your food. For more in-depth information about acrylamide, I recommend reading the online report: "Heat-generated Food Toxicants, Identification, Characterization and Risk Minimization"8.
Take Control of Your Health with Whole Food
While many foods – from coffee and breakfast cereal to bread – contain acrylamide, the highest levels have been detected in starchy plant-based foods, particularly French fries and potato chips. As a general rule, just remember that cooking food at high temperatures is ill advised, and that most processed foods will contain acrylamide as a side effect of high-heat processing.
Ideally, consume foods that are minimally processed to avoid these types of toxic byproducts. My nutrition plan emphasizes the need for at least one-third of your foods to be consumed raw. For a step-by-step guide to make the transition to a healthier diet as simple and smooth as possible, simply follow the advice in my optimized nutrition plan.
Remember, eating fresh whole foods is the "secret" to getting healthier, losing weight and really enjoying your food. Once you get used to it, you'll find you can whip up a healthful meal from scratch in the same amount of time it would have taken you to drive down the street to pick up fast food. The main difference will be greater satisfaction, both physically and mentally, and perhaps even financially, as processed foods typically end up being more expensive than cooking from scratch.