Finding acryl-amide--a reagent biochemists use to separate proteins, and a neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen--in fried and baked foods was surprising enough.1 What really puzzled food chemists was how it gets there. Now four research groups may have solved the mystery.

In papers from the University of Reading in England and the Nestle Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland,2,3 and a report from Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio, delivered before the Association of Official Analytical Chemists, researchers concluded that it all comes down to organic chemistry.

At temperatures above 100°C, the amino acid asparagine--abundant in potatoes and cereal grains--bonds with 'reducing' sugars like glucose according to the Maillard reaction. Similar reactions create the familiar flavor and color compounds that make cooked food scrumptious. In the acrylamide pathway, a Maillard product called N-glycoside cleaves at a carbon-nitrogen bond, yielding the carbon skeleton and terminal amide group of asparagine, which transitions...

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