Acrylamide hit the headlines in 2002 when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration first reported unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide, found to cause cancer in laboratory rats, in carbohydrate-rich foods, such as crisps, cooked at high temperatures.
Since the Swedish discovery a global effort has been underway to deepen knowledge about this chemical, with more than 200 research projects initiated around the world, with their findings co-ordinated by national governments, the EU and the United Nations.
Recently published exploratory data from the US Food and Drug Administration expanded its study of acrylamide in a wide variety of foods, including breads, cereals, and snack foods, in an effort to understand the occurrence of this chemical in the food supply.
Olives, breakfast cereals, coffee crisps, chocolate and bread all came under the microscope.
From the couple of hundred products tested, a handful recorded over 1000ppb (parts per billion, a measure of concentration used where low levels of concentration are significant) of acrylamide.
Among the brands with the 1000 plus figures were 'Health Valley Original Oat Bran Graham Crackers' (1540), 'Nabisco Grahams' (944), 'National Food Mariquitas Sweet Potato Chips' (1570) and 'Trader Joe's Veggie Chips Potato Snacks' (1970).
Breakthrough research by UK scientist Professor Don Mottram at the University of Reading has contributed considerably to our understanding of how acrylamide is created in foods.
Mottram's team suspected it could be created by a reaction between an amino acid called asparagine, which occurs naturally in relatively high levels in potatoes and other cereals, and sugar.
Tests confirmed that when the amino acid is heated, it does react with sugar to create acrylamide, a process called the Maillard reaction. This occurs at temperatures above 100°C (212°F). Their findings were published in Nature 419, 448-449 (2002).