High-Temp Cooked Food

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A prominent debate in the field of nutrition regards the relative benefits and costs of cooking food. In some cases, raw food contains more nutrients than cooked counterparts, but in other cases the converse is true.[1] There is greater consensus, however, that certain forms of high-temperature cooking can add dangerous chemical properties to food. For example, acrylamide, discovered in food in 2002, is a chemical that is naturally occurring in some foods and also formed through high-temperature cooking, which causes a chemical reaction between certain sugars and asparagine (an amino acid). (Note that this is not the same carcinogen produced when grilling or frying meat: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or heterocyclic aromatic amines.) Acrylamide has been found to cause cancer in laboratory studies of animals, but research on humans has been inconclusive.[2] The Environmental Protection Agency has classified acrylamide as “likely to be a carcinogen to humans.”

Types of Food Containing Acrylamide

As shown in the table below, a few foods common in the American diet have high concentrations of acrylamide.[3] Food will generally have higher concentrations of acrylamide when prepared with certain forms of high-temperature cooking, including roasting, frying, baking, broiling, and grilling. There are three categories of high-risk cooked foods:[4]

  1. Fried processed foods, such as French fries and potato chips.
  2. Baked snack foods that contain wheat and sugar, such as crackers and cookies. **Baked foods with relatively low concentrations of acrylamide include pizza, muffins, and tortillas.
  3. Toasted or roasted grains, seeds, or nuts, such as toasted bread, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, coffee, chocolate (from roasted cocoa beans), roasted nut butters, and grain-based coffee substitutes (e.g., Nestle Pero).

There are some exceptions to these rules of thumb. One exception is black olives, which is the only raw food that has been occasionally found to contain a high concentration of acrylamide. Prunes and possibly other dried fruits also have relatively high acrylamide.

 

Acrylamide Levels in Common Foods

Food Sampled by FDAAverage Acrylamide PPB
Crackers, butter-type450
Potato, french-fried, fast-food433
Potato chips411
Crackers, graham389
Black olives259
Prune juice, bottled239
Chocolate chip cookies213
Oat ring cereal187
Pretzels, hard, salted171
Popcorn, microwave, butter-flavored152
Corn/tortilla chips152
Raisin bran cereal148
Shredded wheat cereal104
Corn flakes cereal79
Peanut butter, creamy66
Potato, baked (w/ peel)66
Crackers, saltine59
Sunflower seeds (shelled), roasted, salted50
Bread, whole wheat43
Sugar cookies42
Bagel, plain, toasted40
Granola w/ raisins40
Peanuts, dry roasted, salted38
Crisped rice cereal35
Bread, rye35
Bread, cracked wheat33
Granola bar, w/ raisins28
Chocolate syrup26
Biscuits, refrigerated-type, baked25
Doughnut, cake-type, any flavor25
English muffin, plain, toasted24
Fruit-flavored cereal, presweetened24
Brownie23
Apple pie, fresh/frozen20
Chocolate candy bar, milk chocolate, plain20
Pizza, cheese and pepperoni, regular crust, from pizza carry-out20
Pumpkin pie, fresh/frozen19
Breakfast tart/toaster pastry17
Pancakes, frozen, heated15
Cake, chocolate w/ icing14
Tortilla, flour13
Bread, white, enriched11
Muffin, fruit or plain10
Cornbread, homemade10
Starbucks Coffee Colombia (brewed)7
Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee (brewed)6

Source. FDA. (2003-06). Survey Data on Acrylamide in Food: Total Diet Study Results.

 

Minimizing Exposure to Acrylamide

The FDA has not yet established “safe” levels of acrylamide in food. Although it may be practically impossible to avoid acrylamide altogether, there are several steps you can take to reduce the total amount of acrylamide consumed in order to minimize health risks.

  • Eat raw, uncooked food. Raw food does not contain acrylamide, with the exception of black olives.
  • Use boiling, steaming, or microwaving rather than frying, baking, broiling, or roasting. The former methods generally do not produce acrylamide.[5]
  • If you need to bake or fry foods, ensure that the temperature does not exceed 248 degrees Fahrenheit, as this is the temperature when significant acrylamide formation can begin. Baking at high humidity can also decrease acrylamide formation, which otherwise requires relatively dry conditions. [6]
  • Avoid eating browned or blackened parts of baked food, such as the crust of bread or pizza. These parts contain the highest concentrations of acrylamide.
  • If you drink coffee or espresso, use dark roasted beans. Coffee beans are the only cooked food in which a darker color equals less acrylamide.
  • Limit consumption of common foods with the highest concentrations of acrylamide: French fries, potato or corn chips, crackers, cookies, wheat breakfast cereal, granola, toasted bread/bagels, popcorn, and pretzels.
  • Consider alternatives to common foods that contain acrylamide:
    1. Ice cream, “no bake” cookies, or fruit instead of baked cookies
    2. Bread without toasting (crust removed)
    3. Raw fruit instead of dried fruit
    4. Green olives instead of black olives.
    5. Instead of coffee, choose tea, sugar-free energy drinks, or caffeine pills
    6. Boiled potatoes or mashed potatoes instead of French fries
    7. Raw nuts and raw nut butters instead of roasted nuts/nut butters
    8. Raw muesli, oatmeal, grits, or cream of wheat instead of cold read-to-eat breakfast cereals
    9. Vegetables for dipping instead of potato chips