With the large portions of foods now being served in U.S. restaurants, which haven’t taken home those wonderful French fries, with the expectation of enjoying them later. However, government regulators are now targeting the naturally occurring chemical in fried starchy foods that is heat-activated, including the treasured French fry, which has been linked to cancer in lab rats.

A news report in the Chicago Tribune has caught the attention of in a big way: America’s most popular “so-called” vegetables — golden brown French fries and crispy potato chips — aren’t just loaded with fat and sodium, but may have an added danger when heated up. Starchy fried foods also can contain a chemical called acrylamide that is quietly raising concern as a potential human carcinogen.

A natural byproduct of cooking high-carbohydrate foods at high temperatures, acrylamide also turns up in a wide variety of roasted and baked foods, including breakfast cereal, baby food, bread, crackers, coffee, cocoa, roasted asparagus and even canned olives.

Research has shown that the chemical can cause tumors and neurological problems in lab animals when they are fed unnaturally large doses.

So far, U.S. consumers don’t seem worried; surveys show most people have never heard of acrylamide, even though it turns up in about 40 percent of food.

However, federal food governing bodies in the U.S., Canada and Europe are stepping up efforts to deal with the chemical, and food-industry chemists already are aggressively pursuing ways to reduce it in their products.

Previously known as a synthetic substance found in plastics, grouts and cigarette smoke, acrylamide exploded on to the food safety scene in 2002 when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration detected surprisingly high levels of it in high-carbohydrate foods and published evidence linking it to cancer in lab rats.

Since then, a worldwide flurry of scientific research has yielded hundreds of published studies. And while up to now there has been little evidence that dietary acrylamide harms humans, widely anticipated research to be released later this year is expected to confirm that mega-doses of the chemical are carcinogenic in laboratory animals – and possibly humans.

Before acrylamide was discovered in food, concerns about the chemical’s potential health effects centered on workers who handled it as an industrial substance. Now that it’s known everyone likely is exposed through diet, scientists want to know how the body handles dietary acrylamide and whether it can cause cancer.

“Everyone realizes acrylamide is in so many foods and at such high levels that we can’t just sit back and say, ‘ho-hum,’ ” said food safety consultant James Coughlin, a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists. “I’ve never seen such cooperation between countries, industries and government. Acrylamide is the biggest thing going on for food toxicologists.”

Unlike some other chemicals of concern, dietary acrylamide doesn’t come from packaging and is not added to food. Instead, it’s the product of a chemical reaction that can occur in cooking.

Acrylamide forms when sugars and an amino acid called asparagine are heated together at high temperatures — more than 248 degrees Fahrenheit (boiling occurs at 212 degrees F). This effect, part of what’s called the “Maillard reaction,” enhances a food’s color, flavor, aroma and texture, but may pose potential health hazards.

The amount of dietary acrylamide, measured in parts per billion (ppb), varies widely depending on the manufacturer, the raw materials used and processing conditions, including cooking time. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested seven batches of McDonald’s French fries, it found levels ranging from 193 ppb to 497 ppb. One sample of Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnuts had no detectable levels; a second sample showed 22 ppb.

Reducing Dangerous Levels

To cut the levels in processed foods, food scientists have reduced the levels of sugars and asparagine; however, the U.S. food industry discovered an enzyme called asparaginase that can chew up asparagine in food products so less acrylamide is formed.

Food companies also have tried altering raw materials or the way the food is processed, including cutting the heating times and temperatures and changing the oils used or the food’s acidity. But what works in the lab “doesn’t necessarily work in big food laboratory plants,” said Coughlin, an expert on the browning process.

Governments are also taking a closer look. Last month, federal health officials in Canada added acrylamide to their list of chemicals in widespread use to be reviewed for safety. The European Chemicals Agency recently proposed adding acrylamide to its own list in order to possibly regulate its use.

In the U.S., the FDA announced it might issue industry guidelines on how to reduce acrylamide levels in food. The move comes in anticipation of emerging research, including studies conducted at the FDA’s lab at the National Center for Toxicological Research.

Though the agency regulates the amount of residual acrylamide in materials that come in contact with food, there are no guidelines governing the presence of it food itself.

What You Can Do

Instead, the FDA’s advice is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that is low in fat, cholesterol, salt and added sugar and rich in high-fiber grains, fruits and vegetables. In other words, consume less fast and processed food.

“It’s always a balance, said the FDA’s Mike Bolger, chief of the chemical hazards assessment team at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “We’re not trying to minimize the issue, but we also don’t want people overly concerned about something that has been part of the diet for a long time. When we look at human epidemiology, the exposures are not inconsequential. But studies aren’t showing anything.”

Food also has plenty of natural carcinogens, Joe Schwarcz pointed out in his book, “An Apple a Day: The Myths, Misconceptions and Truths About the Foods We Eat.”

“Aflatoxins in peanuts, ethanol in wine, urethane in sherry, styrene in cinnamon and heterocyclic aromatic amines in beef bouillon are as carcinogenic to rodents as is acrylamide,” wrote Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society in Montreal. “But we don’t eat isolated chemicals; we eat food. And food also contains a variety of anti-carcinogens.”

So far, studies have failed to find a link between the consumption of acrylamide-rich foods and the occurrence of colon, kidney or bladder cancers. In May, Dutch researchers concluded that acrylamide had no impact on brain cancer risk.

On the other hand, eating too many products rich in acrylamide may put people at risk for heart disease, according to a pilot study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In 2008, potato chip makers Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance Inc., as well as French-fry producer Heinz, paid fines using acrylamide and agreed to reduce its use in their products within three years as a result of a lawsuit triggered by California’s Proposition 65. That law requires the state to publish a list of substances known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

“It’s like anything; you should watch it,” said Julie Miller Jones, a professor of food and nutrition at the University of St. Catherine’s in Minnesota and a member of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, an FDA advisory council. “I’m not worried about toasting my bread, but if there’s a way to reduce it, why not?”