Why The Negative Effects Of The Maillard Reaction Shouldn't Worry You

The Maillard reaction is the official fancy name for an everyday cooking occurrence. MasterClass offers a quick breakdown of the subject, describing it as "a non-enzymatic browning reaction that occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars" when food is cooked at a range of 280 to 330 degrees Fahrenheit. This results in the release of toasted aromas and browned flavors, like coffee or toast.

However, where there are food molecules, there are worries about what we are eating. In 2020, The Washington Post covered concerns people voiced about a product of the Maillard reaction: acrylamide. This is the same compound that prompted a court in California to require Starbucks to slap a health warning on its coffee (per Reuters). Starbucks attempted to fight the decision, arguing that U.S Dietary Guidelines even identified coffee as a potentially healthy part of one's diet. However, the court did not think that the company had demonstrated the possible benefits.

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has previously argued that three chemicals produced by the Maillard reaction – acrylamide, hydroxymethylfurfural, and diacetyl (which is also referred to as biacetyl, among many other names) – are safe. However, in a letter shared with U.S. Right to Know, health, environmental, labor, and public interest groups accused the ACSH of being a corporate-funded organization that has denied climate change, secondhand smoking, and the health risks of pesticides. The question, then, is about how safe these products of the Maillard reaction really are.

Two thirds is easily safe

In fairness to the ACSH, it appears to be broadly right about the alleged dangers of the Maillard reaction. A 2011 investigation into the potentially toxic aspects of 5-hydroxymethylfurfural published in Molecular Nutrition Food Research found that the estimated daily exposure through food and beverages was likely too low to be toxic or carcinogenic in humans. Though it left open the possibility that caramel colors used in artificial coloring and other additives could be problematic. Similarly, Wine Spectator assuaged concerns about the presence of diacetyl in wine by explaining that the substance is toxic when breathed in large quantities. Diacetyl, it noted, only began to become a concern when workers at a popcorn packaging plant developed lung diseases from the prolonged air exposure. In neither case are the substances in large enough quantities to worry about.

But maybe one should not simply brush off acrylamide entirely. And maybe there is more to consider than one might think when reading an ACSH piece with the headline, "European Union Still Drinking the Acrylamide Kool-Aid." While it is true that the EU could be more cautious due in part to its precautionary principle, concerns about acrylamide are not absent from the United States. The FDA's stance on the matter as of February of this year is that the health effects are not clear, and it has prepared recommendations for companies and consumers on how to reduce the amount of acrylamide in food.