How Do Food Safety Laboratories Test for Acrylamide?

By March 30, 2018

Q&A time: What is acrylamide? How dangerous is it?

Acrylamide is a chemical compound (C3H5NO) that is white, odorless, and generally crystalline in nature. It is produced industrially and used in products such as dyes, plastics, grouts, water treatment chemicals, and cosmetic products.

How does acrylamide get into food?

Acrylamide forms in food as a result of a reaction between an amino acid (asparagine) and sugars (glucose, fructose) – compounds that are naturally present in foods. The formation of acrylamide occurs as part of the Maillard reaction, which leads to browning in cooked foods as well as the formation of desirable flavors. Primarily, this happens at cooking temperature above 120 °C when frying, roasting, or baking foods.

There are also some foods, such as prune juice and canned black olives, in which actylamide has been detected and high temperature cooking has not occurred.

Is acrylamide something new in food?

According to the best information from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), acrylamide has probably always been present in cooked foods. Studies revealing its presence were first published in 2002.

Acrylamide has been documented primarily in plant-based foods such as potato products, cereals, bread (such as toast), and coffee.

How can acrylamide affect human health?

Acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic in rats and mice and is therefore considered to be a potential carcinogen for humans. In 2005, a report by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded that acrylamide was a human health concern, and suggested additional long-term studies. FDA experts participated in the evaluation and provided data from new research studies on acrylamide risk.

Acrylamide is on the State of California Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act) list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, such as birth defects and other reproductive harm.

How have governments responded to acrylamide? Is acrylamide regulated?

In the U.S., the FDA has undertaken a variety of actions related to acrylamide including the development of detection methods, analysis of a wide variety of food stuffs, exposure assessments, toxicity studies, migration studies, and the developed a public information campaign. FDA has posted its data on acrylamide in foods on the FDA website, and the most recent data were added in 2016.  FDA’s advice for acrylamide and eating is that consumers adopt a healthy eating plan, consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020).

In California, a court ruled on March 29, 2018 that coffee companies across the state will have to add a cancer warning label to their products. According to the Washington Post, a California Superior Court judge sided with a nonprofit’s case against coffee companies, including Starbucks, Peets, and other chains, that businesses with at least 10 employees are required to disclose the presence of carcinogens and toxic chemicals.

Is coffee good for your health? Or could it cause cancer?

Acrylamide was added to the State of California’s Proposition 65 list as a carcinogen in 1990 and as a reproductive toxicant in February 2011. A lawsuit brought by the State of California against food manufactures alleging violations of Proposition 65 was settled in 2005 with the manufacturers agreeing to cut acrylamide levels in half.

In January 2017, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a “Go for Gold” campaign, to “encouraging people to not burn our roast or fried vegetables and keep our oven chips at a nice golden colour.” The idea is to reduce intake of acrylamide, the chemical that the FSA says it “created when many foods, particularly starchy foods like potatoes and bread, are cooked for long periods at high temperatures, such as when baking, frying, grilling, toasting and roasting.”

To avoid acrylamides, don't burn your toast

The UK’s Food Safety Agency recommends to “Go for Gold” … not burned toast.

The European Union (EU) has conducted evaluations of the risks associated with acrylamide in food. Workshops and scientific meeting have been held in order to share information and coordinate further research. In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its first full risk assessment of acrylamide in food. Experts from EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) reconfirmed previous evaluations that acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups.

On July 19, 2017, members of the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed voted in favor of the European Commission’s proposal aiming to reduce acrylamide in foodstuffs.

In April 2018, a new regulation from the Food Standards Agency goes into effect, stating that food business operators will be required to put in place steps to manage acrylamide within food safety management systems to keep acrylamide levels “as low as reasonably achievable.”

In addition, the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries (CIAA) has developed an Acrylamide Toolbox to provide methods of detection and techniques to mitigate the risk.

Should I change my eating or cooking habits?

The FDA and other research institutions continue to study acrylamide in food, its formation during cooking, its effect on health, and potential alternative cooking methods that can reduce acrylamide levels in foods. This research may lead to more specific dietary advice or federal regulation of specific food products in the future but at this time no specific restrictions either regulatory or dietary have been issued.

According to Emma Shields, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, in The Guardian, it’s simply too soon to say, while the FSA say they would not describe the risk as significant. “It’s a ‘probably’, not a definite,” says Shields of the warnings of the cancer risk from acrylamide. “Evidence from animal studies has shown that acrylamide can potentially interact with the DNA in our cells so therefore could cause damage and go on to cause cancer, but when we look at studies in humans we can’t see a clear and consistent link.”

How do food testing laboratories detect acrylamide in food?

There are two main approaches for the determination of acrylamide in foods: Gas chromatography with mass spectrometry, GC-MS(/MS), and liquid chromatography with mass spec, LC-MS(/MS). The low molecular weight, high reactivity, and lack of chromophore are challenges in the analysis of acrylamide at low concentrations in food products. New Food Magazine has discussed why LC is a standard technique used in analytical food chemistry for determining the presence of organic trace compounds in food analysis.

Food samples are typically prepared using solid-phase extraction (SPE) or similar techniques prior to analysis by chromatography in order to optimize the sample – interfering compounds may be removed, background contaminates can be minimized, and the compounds of interest may be concentrated. All of these can lead to more sensitive and accurate analysis of the sample.

Analytical instruments used for the detection and quantification of acrylamide include gas chromatography (GC) coupled with electron capture detection (ECD), nitrogen phosphorus detection (NPD), flame photometric detection (FPD), flame ionization detection (FID), or liquid chromatography (LC) coupled with ultraviolet detection (UV) and/or fluorescence detection.


Acrylamide chromatography method

A UPLC/PDA separation of acrylamide and related compounds, methacrylamide and methacrylic acid.

What Waters technologies can aid in the detection of acrylamide?

For food analysis, Waters offers a variety of HPLC and UHPLC/UPLC systems, from those designed for routine QC use to research-grade instrumentation, that provide a variety of options for food safety laboratories depending on specific analytical and business needs. When our LC systems are paired with mass spectrometers for LC-MS/MS to identify and quantify compounds such as acryalmide, food testing labs can achieve trace-level analysis.

For the preparation of samples prior to analysis, Oasis SPE cartridges are considered the best available products in terms of repeatability, quality, and selectivity. Waters scientists are investigating new extraction and sample preparation methods to analyze acrylamides in coffee.

  • Waters’ Oasis products are recognized as the “gold standard” for sample preparation, including sample enrichment and purification, by SPE. Offering the highest degree of reproducibility, recovery, quality, and sensitivity, these products provide the user with the best SPE results possible.
  • Using a polymeric sorbent, Oasis products are also water wettable (i.e., they don’t suffer a loss of reproducibility if they dry out) and can be used over a large pH range for maximum method flexibility. Oasis cartridges are available in a wide variety of formats to fit customer and method requirements.

Waters has specifically developed an LC column for the detection of food sugars – the XBridge Amide column. It is available in a variety of HPLC and UPLC formats and can provide optimal retention and selectivity for these compounds and as well as excellent resolution of acrylamide.

  • XBridge Amide columns were specifically created for the retention of sugars and related compounds such as acrylamide. Because of this very focused application area, the product was able to be optimized for the detection of these compounds and provides superior retention, separation and repeatability.
  • In addition, the product is built using the polymeric ethylene bridged hybrid (BEH) particle, which allows for extended column lifetime as well as utilization over the complete pH range. The columns are available in HPLC and UPLC formats and methods can be easily transferred between both of these types of systems.

Can Waters provide me with methods for the detection of acrylamide?

Scientists at Waters have developed a number of different methods for detecting acrylamide, and we’re always partnering with food testing labs to refine and update methods for use with our newest analytical technologies.

As always, we recommend that you check with relevant regulatory agencies to ensure that methods adhere to their guidelines.

See more food safety testing applications from Waters.


This article was originally published on January 23, 2017. It has been updated with current concerns about acrylamide.