Can Burnt Toast and Roasted Potatoes Actually Increase Your Cancer Risk?

Learn how crispy chips, fries, and other starchy favorites could be influencing your health.

roasted potatoes

Updated on May 1, 2023.

Maybe you’ve heard of acrylamide. It’s a chemical found in tobacco smoke and commonly used in manufacturing to make paper, plastic goods, dyes, and adhesives. Many large-scale health organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and International Agency for Research on Cancer, consider acrylamide to be a probable carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. 

Here's why that may be an issue for you: Sometimes, the chemical is also found in food that’s been heated to high temperatures. Most often, acrylamide is present in potato products like French fries and chips, as well as starchy favorites like bread and breakfast cereals. Coffee, canned olives, and dried fruits are other well-known sources.

Though it’s likely always been present in them, acrylamide was first detected in foods in 2002. Since then, some lab animal studies have suggested a link between dietary acrylamide and certain types of cancer, including ovarian and endometrial cancer. 

Many public health officials have taken these studies seriously. In 2017, for example, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the British equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), launched a campaign in the United Kingdom warning against the dangers of burnt toast and roasted potatoes. But does the presence of acrylamide in certain foods necessarily mean those foods are dangerous to eat?

Here’s what look at what’s known about the connection between cancer and acrylamide in food.

What the research shows (and doesn’t show)

Frequently, the results of animal studies can’t be translated directly to humans—and dietary acrylamide’s effect on cancer risk is a good example. While studies on rats have hinted at a link, most research on people hasn’t found evidence of a relationship. For example:

  • A 2023 review of 63 studies in the journal Foods concluded it would be tough to draw a line between the two. Additionally, researchers found no proof that exposure to dietary acrylamide affected the body’s organs or systems at all.
  • The amount of exposure to acrylamide in food—whether it was low or high—made no difference in cancer risk in a 2022 review and meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Nutrition.
  • In a 2019 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study, researchers concluded that dietary acrylamide wasn’t a big public health factor for cancer risk, based on the evidence they reviewed.

In each case, however, though scientists find no link, they couldn’t categorically declare that no link existed. Instead, they suggested more study was needed. This nuanced view is generally echoed by multiple health organizations, including the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the American Cancer Society (ACS).

How to reduce your acrylamide intake

Though acrylamide is regulated in drinking water, it’s not regulated in food. If you’re worried, there are steps you can take to limit its presence in your diet.

  • Boiling, steaming, and microwaving starchy foods may be safer than frying, baking, or broiling them. The FDA emphasizes, however, that there’s no need to stop eating fried or baked foods altogether.
  • Before you fry or roast potatoes, dip thin slices in water for 15 to 30 minutes. Make sure to dry them entirely before cooking to prevent oil splattering. (They’ll cook better dried, too.)
  • Toast bread and cook potatoes to a light brown instead of a darker brown. 
  • Keep raw potatoes out of the fridge. 

One more thing: In terms acrylamide exposure in humans, food is a distant second to tobacco smoke. People who light up have three to five times more markers of acrylamide in their systems than non-smokers, according to the NCI. That means one of the best ways to lower your acrylamide intake is to avoid cigarettes. It’s also a wise move for your overall health.

Article sources open article sources

NIH: National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide and Cancer Risk. Reviewed December 5, 2017.
American Cancer Society. Acrylamide and Cancer Risk. Last revised February 11, 2019. 
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Acrylamide Questions and Answers. February 25, 2022.
Wilson KM, Mucci LA, Rosner BA, Willett WC. A prospective study on dietary acrylamide intake and the risk for breast, endometrial, and ovarian cancers. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2010 Oct;19(10):2503-15.
Food Standards Agency (UK). Acrylamide. Last updated April 26, 2022.
Virk-Baker MK, Nagy TR, Barnes S, Groopman J. Dietary acrylamide and human cancer: a systematic review of literature. Nutr Cancer. 2014;66(5):774-90.
Pelucchi C, Bosetti C, Galeone C, La Vecchia C. Dietary acrylamide and cancer risk: an updated meta-analysis. Int J Cancer. 2015 Jun 15;136(12):2912-22. 
Başaran B, Çuvalcı B, Kaban G. Dietary Acrylamide Exposure and Cancer Risk: A Systematic Approach to Human Epidemiological Studies. Foods. 2023 Jan 11;12(2):346.
Filippini T, Halldorsson TI, Capitão C, et al. Dietary Acrylamide Exposure and Risk of Site-Specific Cancer: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Epidemiological Studies. Front Nutr. 2022 Apr 25;9:875607.
Mucci LA, Wilson KM. Acrylamide intake through diet and human cancer risk. J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Aug 13;56(15):6013-9. 
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Acrylamide and Diet, Food Storage, and Food Preparation. February 25, 2022.

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