WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
May 9, 2008 -- The chemical acrylamide -- found in French fries, potato
chips, and even bread and coffee -- is known to cause cancer in animal studies. Now
new research from the Netherlands suggests that it may do the same in
Acrylamide is used in the manufacture of cosmetics, plastics, and food
packaging. Until just a few years ago, cigarette smoke and occupational
exposures were considered the main sources of exposure to the compound.
But in 2002, researchers in Sweden reported that the chemical is also
present in certain foods, especially starchy foods that are fried or baked.
Even black olives and breakfast cereals have some acrylamide, University of
Southern California professor and nutrition expert Roger Clemens, DrPH, tells WebMD.
"It is clear that our foods have contained this compound since man
started cooking with fire," he says.
What is less clear is whether dietary exposure to acrylamide poses a health
In an effort to address this question, researchers from Maastricht
University in the Netherlands examined data from a large Dutch study on diet
and cancer begun in 1986.
Almost 121,000 participants between the ages of 55 and 70 completed a
detailed food-frequency questionnaire designed to determine their eating
habits. The answers, combined with a separate database, were used to estimate
For this study, the researchers focused on acrylamide intake and cancers of
the kidney, bladder, and prostate. After a follow-up of 13 years, there were
339 cases of kidney cancer, 1,210 cases of bladder
cancer, and 2,246 cases of prostate
On average, people in the study ate about 22 micrograms of acrylamide a day.
To put this amount in perspective, a 2.5-ounce serving of French fries contains
about 25 micrograms of the chemical.
The participants were divided into five categories of acrylamide
consumption. People who ate the highest amounts of the chemical were found to
have a 59% greater risk for kidney cancer than those who ate the least,
researcher Janneke G. Hogervorst tells WebMD.
The risk appeared to be especially strong for smokers.
Acrylamide consumption did not appear to be associated with an increased
risk for cancers of the bladder or prostate.
In findings reported last year using the same database and study design,
Hogervorst and colleagues reported that postmenopausal, nonsmoking women whose
included the most acrylamide had significantly increased risk for ovarian and
endometrial cancer than women whose diets contained the
That study was published last December in the journal Cancer Epidemiology
Biomarkers and Prevention. The latest findings appear in the May issue of
the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"In the future we hope to look at many more cancer types,"
Hogervorst says. "We also hope that other researchers will do similar
studies to expand on our research."
But a critic of that research tells WebMD that the Dutch studies and those
of similar design do little more than confuse the public.
"They went looking for an association in this study and they found
one," says Jeff Stier. "But people should not confuse association with
Stier is associate director of the American Council on Science and Health, a
consumer education group.
The FDA has reported that 100% of Americans consume acrylamide, but exposure
levels do not appear to be increasing.
Clemens, who is a spokesman for the American Society for Nutrition, points
out that estimates by the FDA and the World Health Organization suggest that
typical dietary exposures do not come close to the exposures that were shown to
cause tumors in lab animals.
"The exposures in the animal studies were [the equivalent] of about 300
times the amount that a typical person would consume," he says.
He adds that there are still plenty of good reasons for limiting French
fries and potato chips, noting that "balance, moderation and variety are
the keys to a healthful lifestyle."
SOURCES:Hogervorst, J.G. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2008;
vol 87: pp 1428-1438.Janneke G. Hogervorst, doctoral candidate, Maastricht University,
Maastricht, Netherlands.Roger Clemens, DrPH, professor, University of Southern California;
spokesman, American Society of Nutrition.Jeff Stier, associate director, American Council on Science and Health.Hogervorst, J.G. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention,
November 2007; vol 16: pp 2304-2313.FDA/CFSAN: "2006 Exposure Assessment for Acrylamide."
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