The US Food and Drug Administration released draft guidance in late 2013 with recommendations to growers, manufacturers and food service operators to reduce acrylamide in certain foods. Acrylamide is a chemical that forms in plant-based foods – including potatoes, coffee, cereals, breads, crackers and dried fruits – during high-temperature cooking processes like frying, roasting and baking.

Scientists only discovered acrylamide in foods in 2002, so research on the chemical is relatively new. The FDA states that ‘acrylamide forms in foods from a chemical reaction between asparagine, an amino acid, and reducing sugars such as glucose and fructose. This reaction is part of the Maillard reaction, which leads to color, flavor, and aroma changes in cooked foods.’ According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, acrylamide is found in 40 per cent of the calories consumed in the average American diet.

In 2010, the joint FAO/World Health Organization expert committee on food additives concluded that acrylamide may be a human health concern. High doses of acrylamide were found to cause cancer in animals and some scientists believe that it may be a carcinogen for humans as well. Some critics have come out in defence of the Maillard reaction and brown foods. Dr John LaPuma, the head of Chef Clinic in California, told the Wall Street Journal that ‘the amount of acrylamide you need to cause cancer in people is astronomical’.

In 2005, the California attorney general sued several companies – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Frito-Lay, Procter & Gamble and Heinz among them – for selling potato chips and French fries containing high levels of acrylamide. Those lawsuits settled in 2008, while the FDA was still studying the chemical. The industry saw an uptick in acrylamide-related lawsuits in response but there still appear to be scientific gaps in a potential plaintiff’s case. Accordingly, it is unclear what consequences these recommendations will have for companies that manufacture and serve acrylamide containing foods.

In addition to guidelines for food producers, the FDA has included suggestions for consumers on how to reduce the amount of acrylamide they consume. The agency has not called for a ban nor has it said that people should eliminate the chemical from their diets, but it does say that there could be benefits to cutting back and it includes suggestions ranging from toasting bread to a light brown (not dark) to not storing potatoes in the fridge.