Acrylamide is a chemical compound which is utilized in the production of polyacrylamide chemicals, which have a number of industrial uses. Products made with acrylamide are classically used as thickeners in industrial processes. In 2002, Swedish researchers learned that acrylamide was present in some foods, and they raised concerns about the health effects of acrylamide consumption. Several health and safety agencies monitor the levels of this chemical in food and drinking water, for the purpose of protecting the public.
In the industrial realm, acrylamide is used in things like the production of plastics, synthetic textiles, and electrophoresis gels used in laboratories. The chemical is also used in the treatment of wastewater and drinking water, to encourage thickening so that impurities can be pulled out of the water. In the natural environment, acrylamide breaks down relatively quickly, and it does not have a tendency to bioaccumulate, as numerous studies have shown. Levels of the chemical in drinking water are closely monitored with routine water quality tests.
When starchy foods such as potatoes are fried at high temperatures, a reaction between sugars and amino acids in the food results in the formation of acrylamide. This reaction appears to be heat dependent, and so far it has only been observed in foods which are fried at very high temperatures. Formation of the compound can be reduced by frying at lower temperatures. Researchers believe that this reaction has always been occurring, and that it simply wasn't noticed before studies in 2002.
High doses of acrylamide can cause nerve damage, and prolonged exposure has been linked with the development of cancers, especially reproductive cancers. People who work in environments where acrylamide is handled and produced have experienced exposure-related health problems which have been linked with this chemical, and the carcinogenic properties have also been observed in lab animals. These health effects are a cause of concern for regulatory agencies which would like to reduce human exposure to acrylamide.
The presence of this compound in food should not be a major cause for concern. The compound exists in small quantities which have not been linked with health problems, and as long as people eat a balanced diet with a low concentration of fried foods, they should not be exposed to enough of the chemical to cause illness. Reducing intake of fried foods can also be more generally beneficial, and such foods should play a very small role in a healthy diet.