Lauren Robin, a chemist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods -- mainly plant-based foods -- during high-temperature cooking processes such as frying and baking. These include potatoes, cereals, coffee, crackers or breads, dried fruits and many other foods.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said acrylamide is found in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the average U.S. diet.
Acrylamide has probably been around as long as people have been baking, roasting, toasting or frying foods, but it was only in 2002 that scientists discovered the chemical in food. The formation occurs whether foods are cooked at home, in restaurants or prepared commercially.
The FDA has been investigating the effects of acrylamide and posted a draft document with practical strategies to help growers, manufacturers and food service operators lower the amount found in food.
Acrylamide forms from sugars and an amino acid that are naturally present in food. It does not form in dairy, meat and fish products.
"Generally speaking, acrylamide is more likely to accumulate when cooking is done for longer periods or at higher temperatures," Robin said in a statement. "Boiling and steaming foods do not typically form acrylamide."
Given the widespread presence of acrylamide in foods, it isn't feasible to completely eliminate acrylamide from one's diet, Robin said.
However, there are some steps people can take to help decrease the amount consumed:
-- Frying causes acrylamide formation. If frying frozen fries, follow manufacturers' recommendations on time and temperature and avoid overcooking, heavy crisping or burning.
-- Toast bread to a light brown color rather than a dark brown color. Avoid very brown areas.
-- Cook cut potato products such as frozen french fries to a golden yellow color rather than a brown color. Brown areas tend to contain more acrylamide.
-- Do not store potatoes in the refrigerator, which can increase acrylamide during cooking. Keep potatoes outside the refrigerator in a dark, cool place, such as a closet or a pantry.