In October 1997, cows and fish on the Swedish Bjare peninsula suddenly started dying.

The cause was eventually discovered – construction workers had been pumping sealant into holes in a nearby railway tunnel which contaminated the water with acrylamide. Not only did this kill those cows and fish, it is a proven carcinogen for animals – and a probable carcinogen for humans.

The problem with acrylamide is that it is found in many of the foods that we eat, especially starchy food with higher levels of asparagine such as crisps, chips, toast, cakes, and biscuits. One other place where people might not think acrylamide resides is in cooking oil.

Acrylamide in food

Acrylamide has long been seen as a risk factor in some foods. It develops as a natural by-product in food through the Maillard reaction, a form of non-enzymatic browning where a chemical reaction occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars.

Food safety experts have been studying acrylamide since the early 2000s, and in 2013, the European Commission introduced ‘indicative values’ for food groups most associated with acrylamide. These were a guide rather than regulatory limits, but as of April 2018 food businesses in Europe have been required to put in place practical steps to manage acrylamide in their food management systems. Acrylamide cannot be fully eliminated, but it can be reduced and this is what new EU regulation is aiming for.

What are the risks?

Potential health risks of acrylamide include cancer and damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, although risk levels differ depending on lifestyle and consumption levels.

The Committee on Mutagenicity have suggested that acrylamide could damage DNA, stating that ‘there is no level of exposure to this genotoxic carcinogen that is without some risk’. In 2014, the European Food Safety Authority supported the CoM’s views, and the Food Standards Agency has been keeping an eye on acrylamide levels in food since 2007, recommending that when cooking foods like bread and potatoes, they are cooked to the lightest colour acceptable.

Cooking oil and acrylamide

Acrylamide is not naturally found in cooking oil, but if starchy foods such as potatoes are fried in oil, and that oil is reused, then acrylamide can build up to dangerous levels. This is not a huge concern for domestic cookery (unless chip fryers are used and oil is not replaced) but it might worry a lot of people who work in the food industry and use cooking oil on a daily basis, because if cooking oil is used beyond its working life, acrylamide is likely to build up and could harm consumers.

It is recommended that cooking oil should be replaced when it reaches 25% Total Polar Compound (TPC). There isn’t a direct correlation between acrylamide and TPC levels but it’s widely acknowledged that oils with a high TPC level also contain higher levels of acrylamide.

Both sides of the coin

A common problem in the food sector is knowing when oil has reached an unacceptable TPC level. Some kitchens keep reusing their oil, unaware that it has become dangerous for consumers. This is often due to traditional oil changing schedules, subjective oil checks based on colour or test strips, poor awareness of acrylamide dangers or attempting to increase oil life and cut costs.

Perhaps surprisingly, our research has shown that many businesses are actually erring on the side of caution and discarding oil which is still safe to reuse. As sustainability programmes are given greater focus, key foodservice and hospitality brands such as Whitbread are leading the way in reducing oil usage by up to 52% – simply by implementing regular oil quality checks using an electronic food oil monitor.

One of the best ways to ensure that your cooking oil is safe to use is to invest in a food oil monitor. At Klipspringer, we recommend the FOM330 Ebro oil monitor to check your oil at regular intervals. It is a handheld and portable instrument which is extremely simple to use, quickly measuring TPC levels in oil to a high standard of accuracy. This monitor not only makes companies more efficient, by preventing oil wastage, it also makes them safer and prevents acrylamide build up.

Advice for the Food Industry

There are a few simple pieces of advice that any business in the food industry which cooks with oil, or cooks food containing acrylamide, should follow:

  • Abide by the acrylamide standards relevant to your region
  • Where possible, cook food at lower temperatures for less time
  • Cook food to a maximum light golden brown colour
  • Regularly check the levels of TPC in your oil and discard at 25%

If you would like further guidance relating to the solutions mentioned in this article, the Klipspringer team would be happy to help. Share your details below to arrange a free consultation.