Some science behind the scenes

Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a chemical compound with the chemical formula C3H5NO. Its IUPAC name is prop-2-enamide.  Most acrylamide is used to synthesize polyacrylamides, which find many uses as water-soluble thickeners. These include use in wastewater treatment, paper-making, ore processing, tertiary oil recovery, and the manufacture of permanent press fabrics. Some acrylamide is used in the manufacture of dyes and the manufacture of other monomers.

Acrylamide is a known lethal neurotoxin and animal carcinogen. Its discovery in some cooked starchy foods in 2002 prompted concerns about the carcinogenicity of those foods.

Some evidence suggests exposure to large doses can cause damage to the male reproductive glands. Direct exposure to pure acrylamide by inhalation, skin absorption, or eye contact irritates the exposed mucous membranes, e.g., the sinuses, and can also cause sweating, urinary incontinence, nausea, myalgia, speech disorders, numbness, paresthesia, and weakened legs and hands. In addition, the acrylamide monomer is a potent neurotoxin, causing the disassembly or rearrangement of intermediate filaments.   

Acrylamide is considered a potential occupational carcinogen by US government agencies. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have set dermal occupational exposure limits at 0.03 mg/m3 over an eight-hour workday.

In our area, despite public protest and a great deal of evidence, a farmer was allowed to spread paper waste on his fields as a ‘soil improver’.  He was paid to take this paper waste away which was produced as a result of the paper mill recycling paper.  The result was that numerous streams in the vicinity of the area where the waste had been tipped became polluted and killed numerous fish.  Furthermore at least two people had their water supply – from springs – so polluted that they had to be put on mains water.  The farmer paid for the work to keep them quiet.

The fields on which this waste had been tipped were originally used to graze sheep, however, the sheep did not thrive and the fields are now used to grow hay for other farmers and oil seed rape - used for cattle cake and cooking oil.  The fields on which the waste was tipped borders on reservoirs used for the drinking water of our city and also a number of other large cities. 

This is how Acrylamide gets into the food chain.

There is also the suspicion by a number of food groups that Acrylamide has been used as a cheap thickener in foods instead of cornstarch or flour.  Acrylamide has been found to occur in many cooked starchy foods.

Acrylamide also appears to be the by-product of cooking starchy foods at very high temperatures for some time.  It was discovered in foods in April 2002 by scientists in Sweden when they found the chemical in starchy foods, such as potato chips (potato crisps), French fries, and bread that had been heated to over 120 degrees Celsius (248 degrees Fahrenheit).  The production of acrylamide in the heating process was shown to be temperature-dependent.

Acrylamide levels appear to rise as food is heated for longer periods of time. Though researchers are still unsure of the precise mechanisms by which acrylamide forms in foods.

Observations

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