What scientific evidence does the FSA have to support action on acrylamide? How high is the risk from acrylamide?
International and European risk assessors (The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives 2005 and European Food Safety Authority 2015 - EFSA) have concluded that acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers. This is based upon evidence from animal studies which shows that acrylamide is genotoxic and carcinogenic because it damages DNA. This is backed up by supporting evidence from in vitro studies on human cells that is consistent with the results from the animal studies.
Because it is not possible to establish a safe level of exposure and therefore quantify risk, EFSA used a margin of exposure approach. The margin of exposure (MOE) approach provides an indication of the level of health concern about a substance’s presence in food.
EFSA’s Scientific Committee states that, for substances that are genotoxic and carcinogenic, an MOE of 10,000 or higher is of low concern for public health. The margins of exposure identified in the Food Standard Agency’s Total Diet Study on acrylamide range between 300 for an average adult consumer and 120 for toddlers.
These ranges indicate a concern for public health. That is why the Food Standards Agency has been supporting the food industry efforts to reduce acrylamide and has highlighted our advice to people about what they can do to reduce acrylamide in food they cook at home.
What do animal testing results mean for human exposure?
We can’t be absolutely certain that acrylamide in food causes cancer in humans; this is because this is very difficult to prove conclusively. The independent experts (such as EFSA) say that because of the way that acrylamide causes cancer in animal studies it is possible that it could also cause cancer in humans. This is backed up by supporting evidence from in vitro genotoxicity studies on human cell lines for both acrylamide and its metabolite glycidamide that is consistent with the results from the animal studies.
EFSA have estimated what level of exposure would be of low concern and have noted that current levels of exposure to acrylamide are higher than this for all groups of consumers. This means that acrylamide might be contributing to your lifetime risk of developing cancer, but it is not possible to estimate how big this contribution may be.
This is why it is sensible to do what we can to try to decrease exposure and reduce the risk. Nevertheless it is important to be realistic about what is achievable, accept that acrylamide forms naturally when food is cooked and it is not possible to completely avoid it.
Should I worry if I have occasionally overcooked toast/roast potatoes?
There is no need to worry about the occasional piece of food or meal that is a little overcooked because our advice is designed to help you take action to manage acrylamide levels in the foods you eat regularly, over your lifetime.
What’s the position with baby foods?
Acrylamide occurs naturally in many starchy foods when cooked and baby food manufacturers as well as the wider food industry have been working to manage processes and recipes so that acrylamide levels are as low as reasonably achievable. The FSA has been undertaking a rolling monitoring programme for acrylamide in various foods (including baby foods) for some time. The latest report can be found on this page.
Results are compared against indicative values of acrylamide which have been set for different types of foods. The ‘indicative values’ are not legal maximum limits nor safety levels, rather they are performance indicators and designed to promote best practice in controlling acrylamide levels. Where a result is found above the indicative value this is routinely followed up with the manufacturers or brand owners via local authority inspectors who alert them to the findings and request information about what is being done to control acrylamide in those products. New legislation coming into force in April 2018 will replace indicative values with benchmark levels. However like indicative values these are not legal maximum limits nor safety levels.