WASHINGTON (AP) — Maureen Cohen read a newspaper article about cancer-causing acrylamide in her kids’ favorite snacks and wanted to know more.

“I just got curious,” said Cohen, a mother of three in Vienna, Va. “If it’s known that it’s a cancer-causing substance, I sure would like somebody to look into it and find out.”

Acrylamide turns up in all kinds of tasty foods, including french fries, potato chips, breakfast cereals, cookies and crackers. But it’s difficult for consumers to figure out how much acrylamide is in a particular meal or snack.

Nobody puts acrylamide in food. The chemical is a natural byproduct of cooking starchy food at high temperature.

So while you might find acrylamide in potatoes that are fried or baked at high temperatures, you might not find it in potatoes that are boiled and mashed.

French fries and potato chips already are well up on the list of bad-for-you foods.

Acrylamide also forms in plenty of other starches, like the toasted oats in Cheerios, the flour in hard pretzels or even the sweet potatoes in Gerber Tender Harvest organic baby food.

But compared with other worrisome chemicals in food, such as mercury in fish or benzene in soda, relatively little is known about how acrylamide forms, how it affects people or what to do about it. High levels of acrylamide in food were first reported by Swedish researchers in 2002.

Cohen looked on the Food and Drug Administration Web site to see how much acrylamide was in her potato chips – reduced-fat Pringles – but that kind of Pringles wasn’t listed. She called the company but was told to provide a letter from her doctor.

Then she mentioned it to her father-in-law, who works for a nutrition and health advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Already aware of the chemical, CSPI began surveying manufacturers of 30 products. None provided information on how much acrylamide is currently in their products.

Now the group wants the government to publish more data on acrylamide in major brands. The most recent FDA data on brand-name foods is more than two years old.

Consumers, especially parents of young children, need the information so they can pressure companies to reduce the amount of acrylamide in food, the center’s executive director said last month in a letter to the FDA.

“It’s simply impossible for consumers to try to keep track of how much acrylamide is in different foods and different brands,” said CSPI’s Michael Jacobsen. “Consumers rely on the government to ensure the safety of these products, and the government simply isn’t doing it.”

In a statement, the FDA said it is researching whether acrylamide poses a health risk to people. The agency’s focus is trying to calculate exposure to the chemical.

“We have already done extensive sampling to make this determination on exposure,” FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza said. “We don’t believe additional sampling will inform our exposure assessment significantly.”

Also unknown is exactly how acrylamide affects people – studies have shown it causes cancer in lab mice and rats. Yet studies that looked at specific cancers in people have not shown there is a link to acrylamide.

Food companies are concerned about acrylamide and are trying hard to find out more about it, said Pat Verdun, chief science officer for the Food Products Association, which represents major food makers.

“It’s not like we can wave a magic wand and all of a sudden we know how to get a consistent reduction,” Verdun said.

Companies are reluctant to provide information on acrylamide levels because the chemical doesn’t form consistently, Verdun said.

Test results differ even for the same brand of food, according to the FDA. The agency found that french fries from seven different McDonald’s restaurants all had different levels of acrylamide.

The federal limit for acrylamide in drinking water is .5 parts per billion. That’s equal to about .12 micrograms in an eight-ounce glass of water.

By comparison, a one-ounce serving of Cheerios has about seven micrograms of acrylamide, and a six-ounce serving of french fries has about 60 micrograms of acrylamide, according to CSPI.

So what should consumers do about acrylamide? It’s hard to imagine people giving up foods like french fries or potato chips, which are made from the most commonly eaten vegetable in the United States.

“A product can have high acrylamide levels but also have wonderful nutritional value,” Verdun said. “So you have this risk-benefit issue at play here.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest doesn’t want people to stop eating whole grains, either, Jacobsen said. His advice is to eat less of the foods with high acrylamide levels and low nutritional value, such as french fries and potato chips.

Maureen Cohen doesn’t want to eliminate foods from her family’s diet. She just wants more information – such as the warning signs the state of California is trying to make McDonald’s and other companies post about acrylamide.

“I would welcome that,” Cohen said. “I might think, instead of having a biggie size, I might reduce it down to a small.”


On the Net:

Food and Drug Administration: http://www.fda.gov

Food Products Association: http://www.fpa-food.org

Center for Science in the Public Interest: http://www.cspinet.org