Sometimes it seems the onslaught of alarmist nutrition news headlines knows no end.
This week, we’re going to explore a headline that reads, “Potentially cancer-causing chemical may be in your peanut butter”.
Specifically, we’re going to be talking about acrylamide, the chemical in question, and almond butter, which the article reports had the highest levels of said “cancer-causing chemical”.
Is acrylamide in almond butter something we actually need to be worried about?
Is our beloved almond butter increasing our risk of cancer?
Read on to find out 🙂
The headline in question reads, “Potentially cancer-causing chemical may be in your peanut butter”, and ran on at least three “local” news outlets:
Oh, and to be clear, the headline wasn’t the only thing that matched across all of these news outlets.
It was the exact same article as well, produced by a major media company.
Identical headline and article.
I’m sure there are other stations that ran this story – perhaps even your own local station – but these are the three that I could find through a quick Google search.
The article – and video embedded within – explain that an organization called “Clean Label Project” tested several nut butters for levels of a chemical called, “acrylamide”.
The video goes on to describes acrylamide as “cancer causing” (three times, actually) and a “neurotoxin”.
While peanut butter is the subject of the headline, the article and video explain that the top offenders in terms of acrylamide content were actually almond butters.
The “three worst” were Justin’s Classic, Barney Butter, and MaraNatha.
The cleanest brands were peanut butters – JIF, Earth Balance, Market Pantry (Target’s private label), and Great Value (WalMart’s private label).
The article and video didn’t provide an exact quantity of acrylamide found in the various nut butters, but instead explained the following:
“In some of these almond butters, you’re seeing five times the levels that you see within potato chips.”
I know that doesn’t provide much information, but we’ll circle back to this reference to potato chips a bit later in this post.
I looked this up at the Clean Label Project website to see if I could get my hands on the data.
While Clean Label Project didn’t provide any data, they did provide an infographic, which we’ll reference a few times throughout this post.
To the news article’s credit, it does get a few things right, like the fact that acrylamide is a natural byproduct of roasting and is not regulated by the FDA.
However, as we’ll soon learn, you might not have any reason to get rid of your favorite almond butter quite yet.
What is acrylamide?
Acrylamide is a chemical used in a variety of industrial processes, including water treatment, paper and pulp manufacturing, textile treatment, and laboratory work.
Acrylamide is also formed when cooking food at high temperature, which is how it finds its way into almond butter.
Acrylamide is not added to nut butters by food manufacturers in an attempt to pull one over on you.
It’s simply a natural byproduct of the almond roasting process.
Is Acrylamide Harmful?
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) fact sheet on acrylamide reports that acrylamide exposure through inhalation (e.g. working in a coal plant or textile mill) increases risk of neurological damage, but not cancer, and that while rodent studies show an association between dietary acrylamide and cancer, such a relationship is not supported by human epidemiological data.
The latest literature cited by this fact sheet was published in 2012, but we can corroborate its conclusions (or lack thereof) with a couple of papers published since that time.
A 2014 systematic review concluded…
“A majority of the studies reported no statistically significant association between dietary acrylamide intake and various cancers, and few studies reported increased risk for renal, endometrial, and ovarian cancers; however, the exposure assessment has been inadequate leading to potential misclassification or underestimation of exposure. Future studies with improved dietary acrylamide exposure assessment are encouraged.”
A 2015 meta-analysis found that…“dietary acrylamide is not related to the risk of most common cancers”, with the exception of “a modest association for kidney cancer, and for endometrial and ovarian cancers in never smokers only”.
Thus, it is a bit misleading for the Clean Label Project and these news outlets to say acrylamide is a neurotoxin or “cancer causing chemical”, at least in the context of dietary exposure.
If you or your kids are snorting almond butter, however, there may be cause for concern.
How much acrylamide is safe?
As mentioned in the article, there are no guidelines for safe amounts of acrylamide in food.
A 2008 California ruling dictated potato chip manufacturers keep levels lower than 275 parts per billion (ppb), which I suspect is where the video got the reference to potato chips, even though they incorrectly state the relative levels found in almond butter (it was actually eight times, not five times).
A 2009 toxicology study found the “tolerable daily intake” (TDI) for neurotoxicity from dietary acrylamide to be 40 micrograms per kilogram of body mass per day, and the TDI for cancer from dietary acrylamide to be 2.6 micrograms per kilogram of body mass per day.
For an individual who weighs 160 lbs. (73 kg), the TDI for acrylamide would be 189 micrograms.
How does this stack up to what was found in the almond butter?
The infographic from the Clean Label Project website indicates that the almond butter with the highest tested amount of acrylamide contained eight times the amount permitted by the 2008 California settlement, which, if you’ll recall, was 275 ppb.
This equates to 2200 ppb.
So, a one-ounce (28 g) serving of almond butter with 2200 ppb would contain 0.0000616 grams, or 61.6 micrograms, of acrylamide.
This means our 160 lb. friend could eat three ounces of almond butter – six tablespoons, or nearly a quarter of a jar – before hitting the TDI of 189 micrograms.
What’s this mean for our friend’s risk of cancer?
The TDI was calculated to predict the exposure level required to have a risk level of 1 in 100,000.
So, if our buddy is eating six tablespoons of almond butter every single day would be estimated to have a 1/100,000 risk of cancer.
It’s worth noting that our friend would still have a better chance of death from choking, being killed by a dog or hornet, or even dying in a “cataclysmic storm”.
As we start to wrap this up, it should first be acknowledged that dietary acrylamide has not been shown to be problematic for humans.
This is one of my main qualms with the news piece, and others like it.
This news article inappropriately used terms like “cancer causing chemical’, “neurotoxin”, and phrases like “what may be hiding” in your food.
It mentions “testing what’s behind the flashy labels helps consumers see past the flashy marketing and feel empowered”.
Even the Clean Label Project infographic states that acrylamide “is a cancer-causing neurotoxin meaning that it can lead to tumor development and damage to the nervous system”.
While it’s true that acrylamide acts as a neurotoxin at high doses of environmental exposure, and as a carcinogen in rats at high doses of dietary exposure, it has not been shown to be problematic in humans via dietary exposure.
Furthermore, the studies showing dietary acrylamide is a problem in rats were not using almond butter, and exposed the rats to levels of acrylamide orders of magnitude higher than those found in almond butter or regularly consumed by humans.
These terms are used to do nothing but elicit a reaction out of you and stir up fear.
You deserve better.
We eat food, not nutrients
Finally, the tendency for nutrition research to focus myopically on single compounds rather than complete foods is problematic.
Let’s say, just for kicks and giggles, that we DID see a problem with acrylamide from food.
Would this suggest that we should avoid almonds because of this?
I say, “no”.
Acrylamide is not the only chemical or nutrient almonds (or almond butter) provide, and nutrients and dietary compounds do not work in isolation.
Should the *potentially* detrimental effects of acrylamide in almonds outweigh the beneficial effects of the biotin, vitamin E, copper, manganese, vitamin B2, phosporous, magnesium, and molybdenum almonds provide?
Are we to overlook that almonds have been shown to improve lipid profiles, body composition, cognition, and satiety, all because of some news piece that uses scary words?
Again, I say, “no”.
If almond butter truly were problematic, we’d not see it promote so many positive health outcomes.
Every single food on planet earth contains compounds that are harmful in high enough doses.
That alone doesn’t mean we should completely exclude them from our diets.
What you can do
For starters, stop getting your nutrition information from the news.
Beyond that, how you want to handle all of this information is up to you, depending on how worried you are about acrylamide and almond butter.
If you’re not worried about it at all, you might just continue to eat almond butter without second thought.
If you think acrylamide might be worth worrying about, here are the steps you might take, in order of how worried you are.
First, you might limit your consumption to under three ounces (six tablespoons) per day, make sure not to choke, and steer clear of dogs, hornets, and storms.
If that doesn’t give you enough peace of mind, or if you’d like to eat more than that amount of almond butter, you can roast your almonds while keeping the roasting temperature under 295°F (146°C) to keep acrylamide formation under 200 ppb, or roast at 265°F (130°C) to minimize acrylamide formation further.
If that’s not quite enough, you could also just stick to raw almonds or almond butters, but then you might have additional considerations (a full comparison of raw vs. roasted almonds is beyond the scope of this article).
There’s also the option of just not eating almond butter at all.
It’s totally up to you!
Stop getting your nutrition information from the news.
If you still think acrylamide from almond butter might a problem, you might try the following strategies:
- Limit almond butter consumption to three ounces – six tablespoons – per day (I know, that’s a tall order).
- Make your own almond butter using almonds roasted under 265°F (130°C) to 295°F (146°C) to keep acrylamide formation minimal.
- Eat only raw almonds and almond butter.
- Skip the almond butter all together.
Chances are, though, you’ve got bigger fish to fry than worrying about the acrylamide in your almond butter.
Focus on the basics.
Practice them consistently.
You’ve got this.
Until next time, have a great week!