Dietary levels of acrylamide, the chemical compound and known carcinogen naturally produced from cooking food, cannot be shown to pose any health risk to humans, according to an expert panel organized by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) for a press web presentation on Thursday.

Since its discovery in cooked food in 2002, acrylamide has prompted questions from governments, health organizations and the public regarding potential risks of consumption. In April 2011, Food Safety News reported on the European Food Safety Authority’s attempts to encourage food makers to voluntarily reduce acrylamide levels in processed foods.

Acrylamide gained its classification as a carcinogen back when it was only known in industrial settings, long before being discovered in food: Laboratory tests on rodents in the 1980s and 90s demonstrated increased cancer risks. In those tests, however, the mice and rats were given doses of acrylamide thousands of times greater than what comes in a normal human diet.

But the results of those lab tests have inspired public fear over acrylamide in food, despite scientific evidence demonstrating no links between dietary levels of the compound and any health risks in humans, said environmental toxicologist James Coughlin, Ph.D., one of the panel’s presenters. Coughlin and two co-authors are publishing a review of dietary acrylamide studies in February.

Coughlin said that approximately 40 human epidemiology studies have looked at acrylamide levels in food over the last decade, none of which have conclusively associated increased health risks with the compound. He said that a link might only be proven through further testing, which will likely occur, given the level of worldwide attention acrylamide has received.

“I’ve been involved in food additives and chemical contaminants and all of these dietary things for over 30 years and I have to say I’ve never seen such global communication and cooperation between academic, government and industry researchers as when it comes to the topic of acrylamide,” Coughlin said.

But despite the amount of attention acrylamide receives, experts also say that attempting to remove or even significantly reduce its presence in normal diets is largely futile. The European Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries has called the idea of acrylamide elimination “virtually impossible.” Coughlin shared their sentiments.

Among the hundreds of foods that produce acrylamide when browned or burnt during cooking, the greatest concentrations of acrylamide are found in fried potatoes (including French fries), roasted coffee and bread. The compound is made from cooking meat and vegetables, too.

“Acrylamide occurs in a wide range of foods, and we also know that ever since we discovered fire, we’ve been baking, roasting, grilling, frying and otherwise heating foods to temperatures which will produce acrylamide,” said Julie Jones, Ph.D., food science and nutrition professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and the panel’s other speaker.

Jones emphasized that certain foods’ heightened levels of acrylamide do not suggest heightened health risks. In some cases, the opposite applies:

While cereals contain more acrylamide than many other foods, studies show that people who regularly eat whole grain cereal actually have a lower-than-average risk of cancer. Similar studies show lower risks of cancer and diabetes in people who often drink coffee.

Still, for those who are interested in reducing their acrylamide intake, Jones provided a few simple tips:

If baking or grilling, do not overcook or burn food. The more brown or burnt food becomes, the more acrylamide has been produced. If cooks want to avoid acrylamide altogether, they can boil or microwave foods, which won’t produce any acrylamide at all.

But when it comes to reducing cancer risk, Jones said there are a number of practices more beneficial than reducing acrylamide exposure. 

“We know that if people would actually eat according to MyPlate and dietary guidelines, they would reduce the risk of many kinds of cancer, diabetes and heart disease,” Jones said. “The trouble is — and only journalists can get people to do this — only about eight percent of the population eats according to the pyramid.”

She went on: “The average intake [of acrylamide] is so far lower than any level associated with an adverse outcome that, really, focusing on what we ought to eat rather than some micro-constituent that might be a problem is what we need to do for optimal nutrition.”