The Acrylamide Connection

We find the following counsel from Ellen White regarding fried potatoes:

"We do not think fried potatoes are healthful, for there is more or less grease or butter used in preparing them. Good baked or boiled potatoes served with cream and a sprinkling of salt are the most healthful. The remnants of Irish and sweet potatoes are prepared with a little cream and salt and re-baked, and not fried; they are excellent."—Letter 322, 1905 (Diet & Foods, 323.1)

She suggests that frying is unhealthful in part because oil or butter is used to fry the potatoes, adding many fat calories to the resulting dish.  But we now know there is an additional reason to avoid fried foods, especially fried potatoes and sweet potatoes:  certain food preparation processes, including frying and roasting, produce a carcinogenic chemical known as acrylamide.

Acrylamide (or acrylic amide) is a chemical compound with the formula C3H5NO. It is a white odorless crystalline solid, soluble in water, ethanol, ether, and chloroform.  Acrylamide is classified as an extremely hazardous substance and facilities that produce, store, or use it in significant quantities are subject to strict reporting requirements.

Acrylamide has long been considered a carcinogen.  It is easily absorbed by the skin and distributed throughout the organism, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have set occupational exposure limits for a normal workday.  Post-exposure, the highest levels of acrylamide are found in the blood, non-exposed skin, kidneys, liver, testes, and spleen. Acrylamide has been found to have neurotoxic effects in humans, and animal studies show mutations in sperm.

Acrylamide was discovered in food in April 2002, by Eritrean scientist Eden Tareke in Sweden when she found the chemical in starchy foods such as potato chips, French fries, and bread.  Acrylamide is produced by heating a sugar, glucose, in the presence of asparagine, an amino acid, through a series of reactions called the Maillard reactions (after French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard). 

(Interestingly, it is the crust of bread that has been browned during baking that contains most of the acrylamide content, so trimming the crust before eating a slice of bread may have health benefits in addition to any taste or aesthetic benefits.)

But acrylamide is generally not found in foods that were not heated during the preparation process, nor is it found in boiled potatoes. 

The fact that a known carcinogen appears in fried potato foods such as French-fried potatoes and potato chips, but not in boiled or baked potatoes, is a remarkable confirmation of the prophetic nature of Ellen White counsel to boil or bake potatoes rather than fry them. 

Almost any food that contains glucose and has been browned by heating will contain acrylamide—and obviously this includes many common foods. For example, if a baker wants a browner crust, he can brush on a sugary liquid which will caramelize during baking and turn the crust darker--thus producing acrylamide. 

In July 2006, the United States Food and Drug Administration released the results of its research on the acrylamide content of common foods.  The top 20 foods by average acrylamide intake by the U.S. population are as follows:

    French Fries (made in restaurants)

    French Fries (oven baked)

    Potato Chips

    Breakfast Cereals


    Brewed Coffee


    Pies and Cakes


    Soft Bread

    Chile con Carne

    Corn Snacks





    Peanut Butter

    Breaded Chicken


    Soup Mix

Here is a link to an FDA survey of acrylamide in individual food products.  A couple of things jumped out at me as I read through this list. 

First, Adventists historically used Postum as a coffee substitute; it was invented for that purpose in 1895 by W.C. Post, the breakfast-cereal magnate who learned some of Kellogg’s secrets at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.  The product still exists but, according to the FDA, powdered Postum [“Postum Original Caffeine Free Instant Hot Beverage” (powdered, not brewed)] is by far the worst acrylamide offender, with 5,399 parts per billion.  The acrylamide is produced because molasses is added to wheat bran and wheat which are then roasted to make Postum.

Second, because sweet potatoes have very high glucose content, any preparation of sweet potatoes that involves frying, as opposed to boiling or baking, generates a large amount of acrylamide.  For example, Route 11 Sweet Potato Chips have 2,762 ppb, and Blue Mesa Grill Sweet Potato Chips have 4,080 ppb of acrylamide!  Here again, Ellen White’s counsel in directing that sweet potatoes be boiled or baked, but not fried, is shown to be inspired counsel.  In her human wisdom, she could not possibly have understood the need to avoid frying sweet potatoes. 

The acrylamide connection also reinforces Ellen White’s health warnings regarding avoiding coffee and cigarettes.  The roasting process creates acrylamide, so foods that are prepared by roasting, including coffee, have high levels of acrylamide. 

In 1986, Californians passed a ballot measure, Proposition 65, to regulate substances having at least a 1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer over a 70-year period, or birth defects or other reproductive harm, by (1) prohibiting discharge into drinking water sources or water tables, and (2) prohibiting businesses from exposing individuals to these chemicals without providing a clear and reasonable warning.

A not-for-profit group recently sued some 90 coffee retailers on the ground they were violating Prop 65 by failing to warn of the acrylamide content of coffee.  On March 28, 2018, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle issued a judgment holding that Starbucks and other companies had failed to show there was no significant carcinogenic risk from acrylamide.  Starbucks was ordered to begin labeling Coffee with the required Prop. 65 warning.  Here are a couple of links to helpful videos discussing the coffee-acrylamide link. (This raises the question of whether liberal SDA Churches in Southern California that proudly feature coffee bars should be required to post a Prop 65 warning!)

Cigarette smoking is also a major acrylamide source. One study found that smoking caused an increase in blood acrylamide levels three times greater than any dietary factor.  It remains to be seen whether California will require a Prop 65 warning to be placed on packs of cigarettes.  This would seem to be redundant considering the Surgeon General’s warning that has been required since 1965.  Everyone already knows that cigarettes are “cancer sticks.”