It’s an endless stream of this food gives you cancer and this food doesn’t slash now it does and the one that did now doesn’t.
What’s the background?
The Food Standards Agency has warned that eating overcooked potatoes or burnt toast could increase the risk of cancer. They are urging people to reduce their intake of overcooked foods through a public health campaign, dubbed “Go for Gold” – essentially advising people to turn off the heat once your toast, potatoes or other starchy foods are lightly browned.
What is the problem?
A chemical known as acrylamide which forms from sugars, water and amino acids when they are heated together at high temperatures in a process known as the Maillard reaction. The higher the temperature, and the longer the heating time, the higher the levels of acrylamide.
What is acrylamide found in?
Quite a few household regulars. Besides roast potatoes, it’s in biscuits, porridge, coffee, crackers and bread. It is also found in tobacco smoke and is used in various industrial applications.
How big a cancer risk are we talking about?
According to Emma Shields, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, it’s simply too soon to say, while the FSA say they would not describe the risk as significant. “It’s a ‘probably’, not a definite,” says Shields of the warnings of the cancer risk from acrylamide. “Evidence from animal studies has shown that acrylamide can interact with the DNA in our cells so therefore could cause damage and go on to cause cancer, but when we look at studies in humans we can’t see a clear and consistent link.” The guidelines from the FSA are based on estimates of risks to humans drawn from analyses of animal studies. “We are not saying to people to worry about the occasional piece of food or meal that’s overcooked. This is about managing risk across your lifetime,” says FSA director of policy Steve Wearne.
Are there other issues with acrylamide?
In a 2015 report into acrylamide, the FSA noted that exposure to the chemical has also been linked to damage to the nervous and reproductive systems. But the risk assessment concluded that, “at the levels we are exposed to from food, acrylamide could be increasing the risk of cancer but not effects on the nervous and reproductive systems.”
So should I stop eating toast and spuds?
As the FSA notes, we cannot avoid exposure to acrylamide and they do not suggest that you should avoid potatoes or bread. They are, however, recommending that you eat them a little less brown. They also advise that potatoes should not be kept in the fridge since this can increase levels of certain sugars in the spuds that are involved in the Maillard reaction. Instead, they say potatoes should be kept somewhere cool and dark.
It seems like everything can give you cancer, from meat to potatoes. How do I reduce my risk?
As Shields points out, acrylamide has yet to be shown to cause cancer in humans; however, other risk factors are well established. “If people are smoking still, stopping smoking is the biggest thing they can do for their health,” she says. Reducing alcohol intake and keeping a healthy weight are also important, Shields adds. “Some of the largest sources of acrylamide are things like crisps and chips and biscuits which are things we shouldn’t be eating every day anyway,” she says.
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