On Monday morning (23 JAN 2017) the BBC gave us the headline : “Browned toast and potatoes are a potential cancer risk say food scientists”. We sent Sarah Khavandi to investigate the facts behind the headlines for Cardiologist’s Kitchen.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has rolled out new recommendations and even a new campaign encouraging us all to ‘go for gold’ .
What the FSA says: “Acrylamide is a chemical that is created when many foods, particularly starchy foods like potatoes and bread, are cooked for long periods at high temperatures, such as when baking, frying, grilling, toasting and roasting. The scientific consensus is that acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer in humans”
What we found out: The ‘scientific consensus’ that they refer to does not have an absolutely robust basis. Cancer Research UK says, “At the moment, there is no strong evidence linking acrylamide and cancer.” In fact the research that the FSA referred to, which was done on mice, shows that we would have to consume at least 160 times as much and still only be at a level that toxicologists think unlikely to cause increased tumours in mice. Here is a great blog that explains some of the research and the statistics behind it.
So, should we be worried? We asked Dr Ali Khavandi to comment on the facts for Cardiologist’s Kitchen.
Browning food is fundamental culinary technique to add texture and flavour through a set of reactions called the Maillard reaction between sugars and proteins. If the food is exposed to even higher temperatures you get charring (pyrolysis), which in small amount also adds to eating pleasure in some cases (e.g. BBQ).
The problem is that if you scrutinise many foods at a microscopic level, particularly after heating, it is not uncommon to find elements which can considered potentially ‘carcinogenic’. Whether or not these levels of exposure over the long-term have any effect on human health is more difficult to define.
It is odd that the FSA has focused on this, as it would seem to be a relatively minor concern in the current dietary arena. I don’t think there should be any major concerns about browning your foods to create delicious Umami flavours and crunchy textures but clearly it is sensible to avoid eating foods which are burnt or overly charred on a frequent basis.