As chemicals go, acrylamide is pretty unpleasant stuff. It needs to be handled extremely carefully as it is easily absorbed through the skin, with the potential to act as a neurotoxin should it do so. Studies in animals have also shown that it can lead to the development of several types of cancer. Its’ use is mostly confined to laboratories and some chemical engineering plants, where it is subject to strict regulation and control.
Worryingly, in 2002 a group of Swedish researchers reported the presence of acrylamide in certain foods, in particular starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, bread and root vegetables that had been cooked at high temperatures. The researchers found that acrylamide was being produced during the complex reactions that occur during the cooking of food. The same complex chemistry that gives the outside of roast potatoes their delicious crust and produces the rich caramelisation that makes roasted trays of sweet parsnips or celeriac so delicious, also results in the production of small amounts of a chemical classified as extremely hazardous.
Since 2002, regulators have been working with the food industry to minimise the levels of acrylamide in processed food, and despite much criticism that not enough is being done, much progress has been made.
Unsurprisingly this produced a raft of media attention and comment, ranging for the usual tabloid “Now chips give you cancer” clickbait, through to biting editorial criticism of nanny state interventions
Until recently this work has kept a fairly low profile, as has the public’s knowledge of acrylamide in food. Earlier this week however, the Food Safety Authority (FSA) launched a campaign to raise awareness, particularly targeting the types of home cooking that might lead to high levels. The catchily titled ‘ Go for Gold’ campaign has the intention of encouraging home cooks to avoid eating burnt toast and make sure that roast potatoes are only cooked to a light golden colour.
Unsurprisingly this produced a raft of media attention and comment, ranging for the usual tabloid “Now chips give you cancer” clickbait, through to biting editorial criticism of nanny state interventions and meddling regulators sucking the joy out of life. As usual, the reality is somewhere in between.
Does acrylamide cause cancer?
Perhaps. Studies in mice and rats have shown that it can act as a carcinogen in high doses. In humans however, no effect has been reported, and despite extensive study, no link between the acrylamide in our diet and incidence of cancer has been found. Emma Shields, the Health Information Officer for Cancer Research UK has said “Although evidence from animal studies has shown that acrylamide in food could be linked to cancer, this link isn’t clear and consistent in humans.” A 2015 European Food Safety Authority report concluded that intake was “not associated with an increased risk.”
So why all the fuss?
Because from the evidence of these animal studies, acrylamide is classified by the World Health Organisation as a “probable human carcinogen”. Although this sounds pretty damning, as the statistician and expert in risk Professor David Spiegelhalter pointed out in his excellent blog on the subject, it is worth bearing in mind that this probable connection puts it in the same category as being a hairdresser and working night shifts.
How much acrylamide is too much?
Obviously there are many things that we are exposed to that may cause cancer, and as with any chemical, the dose makes the poison. The real question we should be asking is are we being exposed to enough of it to pose a risk?
The European Food Safety Authorities have set a lower limit of 170 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, meaning that consuming that amount or less is unlikely to cause cancers in mice. The average daily exposure that we can expect from our diet is around 0.56 micrograms per kilogram, with high levels (presumably for those of us who enjoy burst toast and crisp sandwiches), coming in at around 1.1 microgram.
This might lead you to wonder why there is any concern, but when it comes to probable carcinogens, committees that decide on what an acceptable level of exposure is usually demand a margin of around 10,000 times lower to deem something safe.
Because of this, the amount we are exposed to is considered to be of concern, hence the FSA’s campaign.
It is not up to chefs, campaigners or journalists to make decisions about cancer risks and I do not envy anyone who has to do this for a living
What to do?
It is not up to chefs, campaigners or journalists to make decisions about cancer risks and I do not envy anyone who has to do this for a living. To an extremely biased food lover who rates crispy roast potatoes as one of life’s great joys, a 10,000 times confidence risk might seem overly cautious. But perhaps caution should be encouraged when you consider the horrendous prospect of getting things wrong.
Whichever side you take, acrylamide certainly provides an interesting case study of how risk should be communicated to the public. For in focusing a campaign on this very small area of potential risk, perhaps there is a greater danger to the public posed by the confusion and demonization of certain foods likely to result.
My worry is that in launching this campaign, the FSA is guilty of focusing public health efforts on a single issue, when perhaps there are bigger fish to fry (or perhaps lightly poach). Even if the levels of acrylamide in our diet are enough to be of concern, the actions being suggested are unlikely to bring them down to “acceptable” levels, especially if we drink coffee, another known dietary source of acrylamide. Would it perhaps be better to focus on the bigger, more complex problems that are known to increase our risk of cancer, such as obesity, high consumption of processed meats, or a lack of regular exercise?
I fear that the FSA is trying to tackle the low hanging fruit without considering the bigger picture. It is far easier to tell people to exclude certain things than it is to try and influence the sort of large lifestyle changes that might really be of benefit.
You might ask what the harm is if people are motivated to eat fewer crisps or French Fries, but in any such campaign, there is always the danger of unintended consequences. Although the FSA have stressed the importance of balance, the sort of headlines generated are likely to create much fear, leading people to exclude or dramatically cut some items in a misguided attempt to improve their health.
A number of supposedly dangerous items like bread, potatoes and root vegetables are also excellent sources of fibre, something that few people eat enough of that is proven to decrease our risk of certain cancers. And do we really want to be spreading messages likely to make people cut down on vegetable consumption, when only a fraction of us manage to consume the recommended 5-a-day?
If all you eat is chips, crisps, roast potatoes and burnt toast, then for many reasons that is a poor choice
The FSA website for the launch of the campaign features a thoroughly depressing video of anaemic, unappetising roast potatoes and soggy, underdone toast. Although it has the best of intentions, it does seem to underestimate the importance of joy and flavour. If we are happy to settle for bland and undercooked options, we may well mitigate a theoretical cancer risk, but we will strike a good deal of joy from our culinary lives, and have a poorer, less healthy relationship with food as a result.
Anyone with a genuine passion for food is likely to eat healthily, because they will be driven to try many different things and embrace the whole world of flavour available. If all you eat is chips, crisps, roast potatoes and burnt toast, then for many reasons that is a poor choice. But occasionally, as part of a sensible, balanced and varied diet, those things will not do you any harm.