French Fries, Potato Chips Contain Cancer Causing Agent
Starchy fried foods such as French Fries, potato chips, some baked goods, and many other items contain a chemical called acrylamide that has been shown to cause cancer and neurological problems in animals. So far, acrylamide, which occurs naturally when high-carbohydrate foods are cooked at high temperatures, has not been shown to cause cancer in humans. But some experts are concerned.
One reason scientists are leery about acrylamide is that it is so pervasive: about 40 percent of the foods we eat contain at least some measure of the chemical. Until 2002, no one even knew acrylamide was lurking in the food supply. Before then, it had been recognized only as a synthetic material found in cigarette smoke, plastics, adhesives, and grout, not as a possible cancer-causing ingredient in our food.
Acrylamide forms when sugars and asparagines (an amino acid) are heated together at temperatures that top 248 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to French fries and potato chips, food toxicologists have detected acrylamide in foods as varied as coffee, roasted asparagus, crackers, corn chips, toast, donuts, and canned olives.
Since the Swedish Food Administration found high levels of acrylamide in high-carbohydrate foods in 2002 and linked it to cancer in laboratory animals, other research has supported the original findings. However, the impact of acrylamide on human health in terms of cancer or other diseases is still uncertain.
In a recent study in Diabetes Care, scientists found that acrylamide was associated with reduced serum insulin levels in adults, which could have an impact on people who have diabetes. Further studies are necessary to establish any relationship. Another recent study found a possible link between dietary acrylamide and an increased risk of oral cavity cancer in female nonsmokers, but the number of cases was too small to make a more definite report.
Several other studies of the impact of dietary acrylamide on humans have come up with inconclusive results. In a 2008 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report, investigators found some indications for a positive association between acrylamide and renal cell cancer risk but none for bladder and prostate cancer. In another study, intake of acrylamide was not found to be a factor in lung cancer risk in men but it was inversely associated with the disease risk in women, most strongly for adenocarcinoma.
Attempts by the food industry to reduce exposure to acrylamide are underway. Some are altering their ingredients or how the food is processed (baked potato chips rather than fried). The Food and Drug Administration is considering issuing guidelines for the food industry on how it can reduce acrylamide levels. The FDA may take this step because of research that is due to be released soon, including studies performed at the FDA’s lab at the National Center for Toxicological Research.
Consumers can best avoid exposure to acrylamide and any possible cancer risk by following a diet that is low in fat and cholesterol and high in fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Processed and fast foods, and certainly foods that are fried or cooked at high temperatures, should be taken off the menu for the most part.
Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2009
Hogervorst JG et al. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2009 May 6; 101(9): 651-62
Hogervorst JG et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2008 May; 87(5): 1428-38
Lin CY et al. Diabetes Care 2009 Sept. 3
Schouten LJ et al. American Journal of Epidemiology 2009 Aug 31.
Written by Deborah Mitchell
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