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A study of cooked foods by the UK’s food watchdog the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has found that acrylamide – a potentially cancer causing chemical – is likely to be formed in a wide range of foods when they are fried or baked. 

This confirms the findings of a Swedish National Food Authority study, published on 24 April, showing that acrylamide is present in a wide range of foods. The FSA commissioned its own study to see if the findings could be replicated.

Acrylamide in food appears to be formed naturally in the cooking process and is likely to have been present since these cooking methods have been used. The chemistry by which it is formed in food is not understood and there is little scientific knowledge on its possible effects on people’s health through consumption of food.

It is not known if there is a link between acrylamide in food and cancer. However, since  acrylamide is classified as a genotoxic carcinogen, the FSA’s view is that it should not be present in foods or, if it cannot be removed, that it should only be present at the lowest possible levels. Based on current knowledge and its likely presence in a wide number of foods, there are no practical ways in which that might be achieved. Any possible risks from acrylamide in food would result from long term exposure.

The FSA is not recommending that people change their diet on the basis of this evidence and our current understanding. Nor is it advising people to stop consuming any of the food tested or change how they cook food.

The FSA continues to advise that people should eat a balanced diet and that eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables provides wider health benefits and helps to protect against some forms of cancer.

The FSA will be contributing to international efforts to develop an understanding of acrylamide in food. There is an expert European scientific committee meeting today [Friday], and a World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting at the end of June, to take this forward. The Agency, together with its expert scientific advisers and other stakeholders, is looking at what steps could be taken in the UK and will issue any advice if appropriate.

Dr Andrew Wadge, FSA head of chemical safety and toxicology said: “We are all exposed to natural chemicals that make up the food we eat. Some, like those in fruit and vegetables, are thought to help prevent cancer. Others could be harmful.

“Obviously we want to do everything we can to reduce or remove potentially harmful substances from food. At this stage it is too early to identify either the effects of acrylamide in food on people or even how it is formed in processes such as baking, frying, grilling or roasting.

“It is likely that any risks from acrylamide are not new and we have probably been exposed to them in food for generations. What is important now is to identify what research is required to help us understand the formation of acrylamide, how it might affect people, and what may need to be done as a result of that work.

“We are not recommending that people change either their diet or cooking methods as a result of these studies. We are recommending that people should eat a balanced diet and a wide variety of fruit and vegetables.”