Chips Are Not Food: Understanding Acrylamide

Chips Are Not Food: Understanding Acrylamide

As someone who has been in the natural retail industry for over three decades now, I still find it amazing how much shelf space in health food stores is devoted to chips and pop. However, since this newsletter is mostly about chips and crunchy snacks, I will only briefly touch on the subject of pop (or “soda”, depending where you hail from).

Is Natural Pop Any Better?

With regards to natural pop versus commercial sodas, well…a rose by any other name would taste as sweet. The average amount of simple carbohydrates found in a natural soda pop is about the same as that of a glass of orange juice or a bottle of cola: about 35 grams per 8 oz (1 cup) serving. A teaspoon of sugar weighs about 5 grams, so what we are looking at is the equivalent of about 7 spoonfuls per drink.

When we think about “big gulp” sizes, it is no wonder that it was recently found that the average teenager in Canada ingests about 40 teaspoons of sugar per day (though this included natural sugars from food, the majority of it was from refined sugars). Hello diabetes. (The average Canadian adult only consumes about 26 teaspoons of sugar daily.)   (Source)

Now, of course, it’s not exactly fair to include orange juice in our sugar-equivalency rating since it does at least provide some potassium and vitamin C, along with a few other nutrients. Other fruit juices like grape and pomegranate provide antioxidants found in their pigments, so fruit juices (all having roughly the same amount of sugar as orange juice) is clearly a better choice than pop. However, fruit juice is still going to cause a blood sugar spike and crash (unless taken after exercise when it functions as a carb-load).

Whereas, a natural carbonated pop, even though it may be sweetened with concentrated fruit juice, or evaporated cane juice, etc, will provide no nutrients to speak of, and will still give you an excessive amount of simple sugars. And so is still a worse choice than a pure fruit juice product.

But, we now have the option of stevia sweetened carbonated beverages, such as Zevia, which provide some of the satisfaction of a pop without any of the sugar. And stevia is considered a safe sweetener, having been on the market for over 50 years (starting in other parts of the world.) In fact, stevia may actually have some health benefits, aside from reducing sugar intake.

Currently the closest thing to a healthy soda pop is Kombucha, which currently dominates the pop section of most health food stores. Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage, which is naturally carbonated, and in the process of fermentation most of the sugar in the product has been consumed by the bacteria and turned into lactic acid. This form of lactic acid (different from that created in the body following exercise) supports friendly bacteria colonization and digestive health.

However, one drawback of Kombucha, like with most pop (except stevia sweetened products) is that it can be hard on the teeth. The problem is that, while there is very little sugar in Kombucha, like with iced tea products which are high in citric acid, Kombucha contains a lot of lactic acid, which can also erode tooth enamel. Thus, sipping a Kombuch beverage over a long period of time will consistently bathe the teeth in an erosive compound, and one should be sure to rinse well with water when done, to neutralize the acid compound coating the teeth.

Why Do We Crave Chips?

If pop is our “yin” (sweet), then chips and their ilk are our “yang” (salty), and one can measure the health of one’s diet by how often they oscillate between eating overly sweet and salty things. One sets up a craving for the other (sweet leads to salty and vice versa), and both pop and chips are ideal examples of how the industrial food complex has manipulated our evolutionary urges into addictive substances.

I have a theory as to why chips in all their various forms are so addictive. There is of course the addictive nature of salt, as in “you can’t just eat one.” Now, the highest amount of sodium in the diet is found in animal protein and at an early point in our evolution we would have had a strong affinity for animal protein, as it would have been difficult to obtain since you had to hunt and kill for it, rather than running down to the grocery store. Salt, being a necessary electrolyte, was such an important dietary component that the word salary was originally derived from the use of salt as a form of payment.  (Source)

Aside from the addictive nature of salt, my theory as to why we are hooked on the three snack dwarfs, Fatty, Salty and Crunchy, is because they mimic the eating of bone marrow. Bone marrow is one of the most nutritious foods and was commonly consumed by our ancestors. It contains salt and good fat, and crunches when you break and chaw on that bone. To this day it is considered a superior food in Chinese medicine, where it is used for healing and for supporting “kidney essence”,  believed to be necessary for longevity and vitality. Add some ketchup (in the case of fries) and you have a bit of blood-mimic to finish off the illusion.

Are Natural Chips Better?

Some people think that if they buy their chips in a health food store that they are now “healthy”, but nothing could be further from the truth. I used to tell those who asked my opinion, that eating chips was the equivalent of chain smoking, as far as damage to the body goes. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the hard truth is that high temperature frying of food in vegetable oils that are heated repeatedly creates a product saturated in bad fats, fats which cause a lot of free radical damage in the body. Just like cigarettes.

Now, we have all heard of the dangers of trans fats, found in margarine and products cooked in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and while regular vegetable oils do not produce trans-fats per se, they still are very unhealthy.

The idea that cooking with heat damages the oils that are highly polyunsaturated is true and the warning against cooking or frying using fragile oils is valid, but not because trans fats are formed. What is formed under harsh circumstances such as high-temperature cooking and frying is a polymerized oil, and this is because the heat has helped to form free radicals and then various breakdown products.”   (Source)

On top of the damage from fats created by repeated heating of vegetable oils we also have to consider the acrylamide content of these “foods”.


Acrylamide is a chemical compound used in industry, including wastewater treatment, papermaking, ore processing, and to manufacture dyes and permanent press fabrics. It is a known neurotoxin and carcinogen, and when it was discovered in some cooked starchy foods, scientists became concerned about the potential cancer risk of those foods.

In 2002, Swedish scientists found acrylamide occurring in starchy foods including potato chips, French fries, and crackers that had been heated to high temperatures. It occurred most commonly in fried or baked goods, but did not occur in foods that had been boiled, nor in foods that were not heated.

A small scale study analyzed six subjects, who consumed food containing a measured amount of acrylamide, over a 72-hour period. The conclusion showed that “most of the acrylamide ingested with food is absorbed in humans.”    (Source)

The longer a starchy food is heated, and the higher the temperature (anything above 120C or 248F), the higher the levels of acrylamide it contains. This formation is believed to be due to the reaction of the amino acid asparagine and sugars (glucose, fructose, etc) under high heat. The temperature that is required to produce crispness is the same as that which creates acrylamide, so any crisp snack from crackers to breakfast cereal flakes have to all be suspected of containing acrylamide.

Acrylamide has also been found in cocoa powder, roasted almonds and coffee. According to the FDA the top 10 foods with the most acrylamide are as follows: French fries (made in restaurants); French fries (oven baked); potato chips; breakfast cereals; cookies; brewed coffee; toast; pies and cakes; crackers; and soft bread. (Surprisingly, there’s more acrylamide in medium-roast coffee than in dark roast.)   (Source)

What Are The Real Dangers of Acrylamide?

The good news is that the FDA and the WHO in 2002 concluded that the intake of acrylamide required to cause neuropathy was about 500 times more that the average dietary intake, and the amount required to reduce fertility was about 2,000 times more that the average intake. The bad news is that they felt that much lower levels were linked to increased cancer risk, based on animal studies. When given in high-doses to rats, acrylamide increased tumors in the nervous system, oral cavity, peritoneum, thyroid gland, mammary glands and uterus.

Since then several studies have been done using humans, charting acrylamide intake based on food frequency data and its effect on cancer risk. Fortunately, large studies done in Sweden and Italy and the U.S., found no link between acrylamide intake and most cancers. However, a Dutch study on 62,573 women aged 55–69 years did find a link between acrylamide intake and increased risks of postmenopausal endometrial and ovarian cancer.   (Source)

Critics of the aforementioned studies, finding no association between cancer and acrylamide ingestion, have pointed out that food frequency questionnaires (the basis of these studies) do not give an accurate measure of actual acrylamide exposure. And in 2008, a study testing blood acrylamide levels did find a 2.7-fold increase in risk for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer for every 10-fold increase of acrylamide ingested.  (Source)

In 2010, the European Chemical Agency added acrylamide to the list of substances of very high concern. And, the World Health Organization currently states that, “Acrylamide belongs to the group of chemicals thought to have no reliably identifiable ‘threshold’ of effects, meaning that very low concentrations will also result in very low risks, but not in zero risk: Some risk is always present when the chemical is ingested. However, for these carcinogens, risk is thought to increase with increasing exposure. Very low risks (even of cancer), such as those that are less than one in one million, are considered to be acceptable to some consumers. To others this is unacceptable. The important pre-requisite for any decision is, however, a clear picture of the nature and level of the risk, as well as the potential for lowering this level. This clear picture does not exist for acrylamide at present.”  (Source)

The problem with considering acrylamide to be a low risk substance, is that the above material, like with most scientific approaches to dangerous food contaminants, only looks at the substance in question in isolation. Realistically, acrylamide (or any other pesticide, fungus, or heavy metal) is not ingested in isolation, they are present in a number of foods consumed, and no one looks at the total toxic load. Nor do they look at how these substances might interact with each other to produce compound effects, or even to produce new toxic substances.

Canadian Position on Acrylamide

In February 2009, Health Canada announced that they were assessing whether acrylamide is a hazard to human health and whether any regulatory action needs to be taken. Health Canada met with members of the food industry to provide an update of its assessment on acrylamide in food, and encouraged the food industry to pursue reduction efforts for acrylamide in processed foods.

In 2012 Health Canada permitted the use of asparaginase in certain food products. Asparaginase is an enzyme that will reduce the amount of the amino acid asparagine, which is naturally present in certain foods and reacts with other components of the food to form acrylamide under high temperatures. Adding asparaginase to foods high in asparagine will reduce the amount of acrylamide formed during cooking. However, I do not see much evidence of this practice in the food industry, currently.

Charts available on the Health Canada website indicate the average intake of acrylamides for different age groups. Results of the probabilistic exposure assessment show that children (from 1 to 8 years of age) ingest higher amounts of acrylamide through the diet, on a body weight basis, than other age groups. This is probably due to acrylamides being found in certain baby foods (especially those containing prunes and sweet potatoes), and the fact that children eat more breakfast cereals than adults. This is something parents should be aware of when it comes to regulating their children’s intake of chips, fries, and breakfast cereals.

It was surprising to find acrylamides in prunes, given that they are not heated to a high temperature. But, one study concluded that: “The results clearly indicate that substantial amounts of acrylamide can be generated at temperatures lower than 100°C under conditions that resemble the drying of foods, such as plums. Acrylamide in prunes and prune juice very likely originates from asparagine which is present in the starting material, i.e. plums.”  (Source)

The Health Canada website also offers a list of the acrylamide content of a variety of foods. As well, the website offers some tips on reducing acrylamide levels in foods cooked at home (mostly involving reducing intensity and duration of cooking certain foods).  (Source)

When Good Fats Go Bad

As far as my analogy of chips being as bad as cigarettes, it doesn’t hold true in the case of acrylamide since cigarette smoking is a major acrylamide source, causing a three times greater increase in blood acrylamide levels than any food. But then acrylamide is only one of the factors in our chips. The other main issue being the high-temperature heating of vegetable oils.

It’s important to realize that potato chips are loaded not only with fat, but with bad fat, sometimes including trans fats. A small bag of potato chips contains about 3.2 grams of trans fats, and many commercial cracker products also contain trans fats.   (Source)

Lately companies have been responding to consumer concerns and gov’t regulation by implying that they are reducing or removing trans fats from their products. However, what they are usually doing is reducing the serving size enough so that it now has less than 500 mg of trans fats per serving. At this point they can legally qualify as “zero trans fats”.

Trans fats technically occur mostly in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, oils that were liquid at room temperature, but after processing are hard at room temperature (like Crisco and margarine). But even if a vegetable oil has not been hydrogenated, when it’s overheated, it deteriorates chemically.

The formation of toxic compounds is dependent on the type of oil and temperature, and how often it is reheated. The decomposition of these oils results in the creation of hydroperoxides and then increasing levels of aldehydes. Both are compounds that cause free radical damage in the body. And, if those chips are old, the rancid taste often masked by excessive flavoring, there is further free radical damage.

(In part two, I will look at how to choose healthier chips, along with chip options.)

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