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How Safe are your Potato Crisps?

Crisps are one of the most consumed snacks in Kenya. It’s hard to miss them in most shops and street vendors that sell snacks. The crisps of choice, or the most readily available, are the ones made from potatoes, though they can also be made from bananas.

Countless varieties exist in the market including branded and unbranded ones and thanks to this loophole in the market, it means that the quality of some of this crisps may not be up to standards.

Research conducted by the University of Nairobi on different brands of potato crisps sold in Nairobi County confirm this. The study, conducted back in 2015, showed that the unbranded (street) type had higher levels of a chemical substance called acrylamide, compared to the branded types.1

However, not all crisp brands were found to have the chemical which was the case with all the flavoured types where the chemical was undetectable. But what exactly is this acrylamide?

What is Acrylamide?

A photo of fried potato crisps
Potato Crisps

Acrylamide is a chemical substance that is usually manufactured industrially and is used for purposes like water treatment, making paper plastics and dyes etc. It’s also found in cigarette smoke.

Back in 2002 however, an Eritrean scientist in Sweden discovered that the acrylamide could form in starchy foods like potato crisps, chips and bread that had been cooked at temperatures above 120 °C.2

It’s now believed that acrylamide is formed during frying, baking or roasting of starchy food at high temperature (above 120 °C). It is formed due to reactions of a naturally occurring amino acid (Asparagine) with starch in the food at high temperatures.3

Health Risks of Acrylamide

Acrylamide has been a source of health concern since it was discovered in food. This is because it has toxic effects on the nervous system and fertility, though from food the levels required for this are very high to be of much concern.2

The major concern however is with regard to it being a probable cancer causing agent (carcinogen).

This is however remains unclear with the American Cancer Society reporting that based on the studies done so far, it’s not yet clear whether acrylamide increases people’s risk of cancer.4 The UK Food Standards Agency holds similar sentiments.5

Regardless, Acrylamide is currently listed as a carcinogen in the 13 Report on Carcinogens (RoC) done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, though this evidence is based on animal studies.6

What you can do?

Based on this findings, it seems while it may not be entirely possible to eliminate acrylamide from our foods we could certainly reduce the levels we take.

With regard to crisps being sold in our country, it would be probably be a good idea to stick with branded varieties, since the study established that the unbranded types contain significantly higher levels.

Beside crisps, we should also reduce intake of fried and fatty foods and instead take plenty of fruits and vegetables as they help to prevent diseases including cancer.

Other Findings

Besides the higher level of acrylamide in the unbranded crisps, the study also found most of them (80%) to have moisture levels higher than the recommended values.1 This not only affects the quality of the crisps but also their shell life.


1. Ogolla, Jackline A., Abong, George O., Okoth, Michael W., Kabira, Jackson N., Imungi, Jasper K. & Karanja, Paul N. (2015). Levels of Acrylamide in Commercial Potato Crisps Sold in Nairobi County, Kenya. Journal of Food and Nutrition Research, 3, 495-501. (Available here:
2. Acrylamide. (2016, October 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:20, October 3, 2016, from
3. Favourite foods that may cause cancer (
4. Acrylamide and Cancer Risk – American Cancer Society (
5. Acrylamide – UK Food Standards Agency (
6. 13th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) (

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