The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched a new campaign, warning people that consumption starchy foods cooked at high temperatures, such as crispy roasted potatoes or brown toasts – the common staples in an English breakfast – may increase the risk of cancer.

According to scientists from the FSA, foods with high starch content produce high levels of the chemical substance known as acrylamide when roasted, fried or grilled at temperatures above 120oC for long periods of time.

Acrylamide is a natural by-product formed from a Maillard reaction between simple sugars and the amino acid asparagine, which is naturally found in starchy foods, and responsible for the delicious golden colour, flavour and aromas. When overcooked however, excess levels of the compound can turn food brown or black, and has been found to increase the risk of cancer in animal studies.

FSA urges citizen to “Go for Gold”

The “Go for Gold” campaign by FSA aims to increase awareness among the public of the potential health dangers of acrylamide, and urges for consumers to opt for a golden colour when cooking their foods as opposed to a darker charred brown.

The public has also been advised against storing raw potatoes and parsnips in the refrigerator, as low temperatures can increase sugar levels in the vegetables, which may inadvertently lead to higher amounts of acrylamide produced during cooking.

"Our research indicates that the majority of people are not aware that acrylamide exists, or that they might be able to reduce their personal intake," said Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA.
"We want our campaign to highlight the issue so that consumers know how to make the small changes that may reduce their acrylamide consumption whilst still eating plenty of starchy carbohydrates and vegetables as recommended in government healthy eating advice.”

But should we give up toast?

The research conducted revealed that acrylamide was toxic to DNA – in studies on mice. In humans however, it is unknown if acrylamide will yield the same health effects.

“The scientific consensus is that acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer in humans,” said the FSA, adding that the European Food Safety Authority as well as the World Health Organisation have also warned against the potential carcinogenic properties of acrylamide.

Yet, many remain unconvinced that there is any real danger to the public health, accusing the government of “massively overreacting” despite the lack of scientific evidence. Professor for the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, Sir David Spiegelhalter, was uncertain if the campaign was appropriate as they were not founded on “firm quantitative evidence”.

"Even adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide would need to consume 160 times as much to reach a level that might cause increased tumours in mice,” he said.

"The FSA provide no estimate of the current harm caused by acrylamide, nor the benefit from any reduction due to people following their advice.”

Focus on real health issues, say experts

According to Chris Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the FSA should focus on real safety issues, adding that the campaign undermines public faith in scientific evidence and confuses the public on what foods are safe to consume due to unclear advice.

However, Emma Shields, a health officer from Cancer Research UK, posited that consumers can reduce their exposure to acrylamide – to be on the safe side – by adhering to a balanced diet.

"It's also important to remember that there are many well-established risk factors like smoking, obesity and alcohol, which all have a big impact on the number of cancer cases in the UK,” she added.
Wearne also believes that consumers should be aware of acrylamide and its potential health risks.

"Although there is more to know about the true extent of the acrylamide risk, there is an important job for government, industry and others to do to help reduce acrylamide intake.” MIMS

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