Mitigation of acrylamide formation in cooked cereal and potato products
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Reading
Unit of AssessmentAgriculture, Veterinary and Food Science
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Chemical Sciences: Organic Chemistry
Biological Sciences: Genetics
Medical and Health Sciences: Nutrition and Dietetics
Summary of the impact
Research at the University of Reading into the origin of acrylamide, a
neurotoxin and probable human carcinogen, in cooked cereal and potato
products has provided crucial information for the food industry and
government agencies. This has enabled important mitigation strategies to
be developed. When acrylamide was unexpectedly discovered in food in 2002,
there was no explanation for its origin. Pioneering research at Reading
showed that it was formed during heating from naturally-occurring sugars
and the amino acid asparagine. Because of this knowledge it was then
possible to investigate factors affecting acrylamide formation and develop
methods of mitigation. Subsequently investigations were undertaken
worldwide, including work at Reading, to minimise the problem.
Acrylamide is an industrial chemical known to be neurotoxic and
carcinogenic in laboratory animals; therefore, its unexpected discovery in
fried and baked potato products, biscuits, bread, crispbread, and coffee,
created huge concern worldwide and acrylamide rapidly became one of the
biggest scientific issues ever to hit the food processing industry.
Soon after the discovery of acrylamide in food products in 2002, Donald
Mottram, Professor of Food Chemistry at Reading and Professor Bronek
Wedzicha (University of Leeds) met to discuss the possible origins of
acrylamide in heated food and they hypothesised that acrylamide was
derived from the amino acid asparagine. They then instigated research at
Reading to confirm this hypothesis and established that the Maillard
reaction involving asparagine and reducing sugars was the route . Their
resulting publication in Nature was the first to establish the
origin of acrylamide in cooked foods and it has now received well over
1000 citations in the scientific literature.
This research provided crucial direction for food scientists worldwide —
academic, government and industry — as they sought to alleviate the
acrylamide problem. Our research showed that acrylamide was formed by
chemical reactions between natural food components under normal processing
conditions. As such, the paper established that complete elimination of
acrylamide from all baked and fried potato and cereal products would be
impractical to achieve. However, it did demonstrate that mitigation
strategies were possible through reduction of essential acrylamide
precursors (i.e. asparagine and sugars) in the raw ingredients and through
control of the kinetics of the reaction during processing. The chemical
pathways leading to acrylamide in food are part of the Maillard reaction,
a complex series of reactions between amino acids and sugars that also
produces desirable flavours and colours associated with cooked foods.
Heating of foods also provides structural changes, which influence
digestibility and texture, and creates low moisture products that are
shelf-stable. A major challenge, therefore, has been to prepare potato-
and cereal-based foods with lower acrylamide levels while maintaining
essential colour, flavour and other desirable attributes.
Further research involving Reading addressed these issues by providing
more detailed understanding of the chemical pathways involved , through
investigations of the kinetics of acrylamide formation , and examining
the relationship with flavour generation. Kinetic models have been
generated for cereal and potato products, including French fries, that
were used to predict acrylamide formation in relation to sugar and amino
acid precursors for different time-temperature regimes . Other work
examined potential mitigation strategies, such as modifying pH, and adding
components that compete with asparagine in the Maillard reaction. However,
strategies that are showing the best long-term potential involve the use
of plant genetics and agronomy to reduce acrylamide formation in foods. We
have been partners in BBSRC-funded projects with Rothamsted Research that
have studied the genetics of asparagine, amino acid and sugar formation in
potato, wheat and rye [4, 5] and the role of agronomy in the accumulation
of acrylamide precursors during plant growth . One particularly
important finding has been that wheat grown under conditions of severe
sulphate depletion contained greatly increased concentrations of free
asparagine — up to 30 times more compared with wheat receiving normal
levels of sulphate — which led to increased levels of acrylamide when
Key researchers: Professor Donald Mottram (from 2002 to date), Dr
Stephen Elmore (Senior Research Fellow; 2002 to date), Dr Jane Parker
(Senior Research Fellow; 2011 to date).
References to the research
 Mottram, D.S., Wedzicha, B.L. and Dodson, A.T. (2002) Acrylamide is
formed in the Maillard reaction. Nature, 419: 448-449. DOI:
10.1038/419448a. Citations: 708 (Web of Science)
 Elmore, J.S., Koutsidis, G., Dodson, A.T., Mottram, D.S. and
Wedzicha, B.L. (2005) Measurement of acrylamide and its precursors in
potato, wheat, and rye model systems. Journal of Agricultural and Food
Chemistry, 53: 1286-1293. DOI: 10.1021/jf048557b. Citations: 82 (Web
 Parker, J.K., Balagiannis, D.P., Higley, J., Smith, G., Wedzicha,
B.L. and Mottram, D.S. (2012) Kinetic model for the formation of
acrylamide during the finish-frying of commercial French fries. Journal
of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 60: 9321-9331. DOI:
 Curtis, T.Y., Muttucumaru, N., Shewry, P.R., Parry, M.A.J., Powers,
S.J., Elmore, J.S., Mottram, D.S., Hook, S. and Halford, N.G. (2009)
Effects of genotype and environment on free amino acid levels in wheat
grain: implications for acrylamide formation during processing. Journal
of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 57: 1013-1021. DOI:
10.1021/jf8031292. Citations: 18 (Web of Science)
 Halford, N.G., Muttucumaru, N., Powers, S.J., Gillatt, P.N., Hartley,
L., Elmore, J.S. and Mottram, D.S. (2012) Concentrations of free amino
acids and sugars in nine potato varieties: effects of storage and
relationship with acrylamide formation. Journal of Agricultural and
Food Chemistry, 60: 12044-12055. DOI: 10.1021/jf3037566.
 Muttucumaru, N., Halford, N.G., Elmore, J.S., Dodson, A.T., Parry,
M., Shewry, P.R. and Mottram, D.S. (2006) Formation of high levels of
acrylamide during the processing of flour derived from sulfate-deprived
wheat. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 54: 8951-8955.
All papers are published in quality, peer-reviewed journals. All are of
at least 2* quality.
Grants for research on acrylamide in food (all awarded to Prof
Formation of Acrylamide in Potato and Cereal Products
Consortium of Food Companies
|Mar 2003 - Feb 2005
HEATOX: Health risks from heat treated foods and food products
|Nov 2003 - Oct 2006
Mechanism of the Formation of Acrylamide in Cooked Foods
Food Standards Agency
|Jun 2005 - Oct 2007
Genetic and Agronomic Approaches to Reducing Acrylamide Formation in
BBSRC with Food Standards Agency
|Oct 2004 - Sep 2007
Producing Low Acrylamide Risk Potatoes
|Jun 2009 - May 2012
Details of the impact
Industry invests in research
Pioneering research findings from Reading  generated enormous
worldwide interest from industry and from government departments concerned
with food safety and health. Recognition of the impact of this research
resulted in significant funding for further research. Initially a
consortium of major food companies (Cadbury, Cereal Partners, Danone,
McCain, Ryvita, United Biscuits) funded a collaborative research
programme, led by Reading, in conjunction with the Universities of Leeds
and Nottingham. A 3-year BBSRC LINK project on minimising acrylamide in
potato products also received significant funding from food and
agriculture companies (ConAgra, Higgins Agriculture, Kettle Foods,
PepsiCo, Tesco, United Biscuits). Individual companies have also sponsored
shorter-term research at Reading, while other major grants have been
provided by BBSRC, Food Standards Agency and the EU.
Reading has, therefore, played a pivotal role in bringing together
researchers in the UK, initially the Universities of Reading, Leeds and
Nottingham and, later, Rothamsted Research and James Hutton Institute. The
outcomes of this collaborative research have had significant impact on the
approaches taken by the food industry all across the world for acrylamide
Manufacturers adopt mitigation strategies
All large food companies preparing snack foods, biscuits, bread, coffee
and similar carbohydrate-rich foods have undertaken studies of their own
products. These approaches, taken towards mitigation, were based on our
initial finding that acrylamide is formed though the Maillard reaction
involving asparagine and reducing sugars in the food. European food
manufacturers have freely shared their findings and have produced a
"Toolbox", hosted on the FoodDrinkEurope website, which recommends
strategies for reducing acrylamide formation in different foods [a]. This
collaboration reflects the seriousness of the concern amongst food
manufacturers to mitigate acrylamide and the acceptance of our research by
the International community.
The Food and Drink Federation report that there has been a significant
impact of these mitigation strategies on acrylamide in food products with
reductions of 30-40% in potato crisps, 15% in potato fries, and 75% in
crispbread [b]. An analysis of over 40,000 acrylamide determinations in
commercial potato crisps from European countries showed a 50% reduction in
acrylamide levels from 2002 to 2011 [c].
Whilst the food industry has adopted strategies for lowering acrylamide
through modifying food processing, many manufacturers remain vulnerable to
fluctuations in the acrylamide-forming potential of the crops. Developing
best practice for cultivation of particular crops, alongside variety
selection and improvement, has an important part to play in acrylamide
reduction strategies. In this context, Reading's collaboration with
Rothamsted Research, has investigated the lowering of acrylamide
precursors in cereals and potatoes This has impacted on the understanding
of agronomic and genetic factors affecting asparagine and sugar levels in
cereals and potatoes and their influence on acrylamide. The impact also
extends to crop producers, where research is leading to increased
awareness of how plant varieties and agronomy methods relate to acrylamide
Evidence in USA legal actions
In 2005 the State of California initiated action against major
manufacturers of potato crisps (chips) and French fries alleging they
"violated a State requirement that companies post warning labels on
products with carcinogens". In 2008, Mottram acted as an expert witness in
the court proceedings, providing evidence that helped the court to reach
an appropriate and realistic judgement in which the companies agreed to
pay a combined US$3 million in fines and reduce the levels of acrylamide
in their products over three years rather than having all potato products
known to contain acrylamide carrying a health warning [e].
Governments and the food industry need to provide consumers with
information about acrylamide and associated mitigation measures. Our
pioneering research at Reading has been used in the provision of such
information to the public by highly respected and influential
organisations, such as the National Cancer Institute in the USA [f] and
the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations FAO [g].
Acrylamide formation is one of the biggest scientific issues ever to hit
the food industry and it continues to attract huge media interest.
Articles describing the Reading research have appeared in popular science
media outlets, for example:
Frying and baking explain potential carcinogen in crisps and bread.
Nature News. Published online 1 Oct 2002. DOI: 10.1038/news021001-1.
Food `cancer chemical' reaction identified. New Scientist. Published
online 1 Oct 2002.
Taking the acrylamide out of wheat. Nature News. Published online 23
November 2006. DOI: 10.1038/news061120-11
Davies, E. (2007). Fries to go? Chemistry World, 4, 46-50.
Reducing acrylamide levels in French fries. ScienceDaily. Published
online 26 Sept 2012.
Sources to corroborate the impact
[a] FoodDrinkEurope [website]. Acrylamide Toolbox 2011.
accessed 16 Oct 2013.
[b] Food and Drink Federation [website]. Acrylamide.
accessed 16 Oct 2013.
[c] Powers, S.J., Mottram, D.S., Curtis, A., Halford, N.G. (2013)
Acrylamide concentrations in potato crisps in Europe from 2002 to 2011.
Food Additives & Contaminants, 30:1493-1500. DOI:
[d] BBSRC Business Magazine [website]. Under the bar: acrylamide and food
safety. 6 Feb 2013. <http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/news/food-security/2013/130206-f-acrylamide-and-food-safety.aspx>
16 Oct 2013.
[e] State of California Department of Justice [website]. Press release:
Atty. Gen. Brown settles potato chip lawsuit. 1 Aug 2008.
16 Oct 2013.
[f] National Cancer Institute [website]. Acrylamide in Food and Cancer
accessed 16 Oct 2013.
[g] Lutzow, M. Acrylamide in Food. Food and Agriculture Organisation of
the United Nations [website] <http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4267m/y4267m10.htm>
accessed 16 Oct 2013.
Users/beneficiaries who could corroborate claims:
- Principle Investigator, Rothamsted Research; able to corroborate
impact of the early research at Reading on the investigations worldwide
of mitigation strategies for acrylamide and the impact of subsequent
research involving Reading and collaborators.
- Vice President, ConAgra Foods Inc; be able to corroborate the impact
in the USA of the research at Reading on the understanding and
mitigation of acrylamide in foods.
- Secretary General, European Snacks Association; able to provide
corroboration of the impact of the acrylamide research at Reading on the
- Senior Director Foods Innovation & Science, PepsiCo International
Ltd; able to corroborate the international impact of the research at
Reading on the understanding and mitigation of acrylamide in foods.