12 January - 20 June 2016

Are browned toast and crispy roast potatoes a potential cancer risk?

Food Standards Agency and the Olympian Denise Lewis have teamed up to launch a new campaign entitled “Go for Gold” which is offering advice on minimising the level of acrylamide in home cooked food.

Food Standards Agency and the Olympian Denise Lewis have teamed up to launch a new campaign entitled “Go for Gold” which is offering advice on minimising the level of acrylamide in home cooked food. 

Acrylamide is a natural by-product of the cooking process formed by a reaction between amino acids and sugars. It typically occurs when foods with high starch content such as potatoes, root vegetables and bread, are cooked at high temperatures (over 120°C) in a process of frying, roasting or baking.

FSA’s new campaign has been launched following findings from the Total Diet Survey (TDS), which represents the average UK diet and is used to estimate the dietary exposure of the general UK population to a range of chemicals in food and make assessments on the safety and/ or nutritional quality of food. The study found for acrylamide “that people in the UK currently consume higher levels of the chemical than is desired.”  

The Go for Gold campaign provides a number of tips to consumers.  It suggests that consumers should “aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy food.”  It also instructs consumers to check the cooking instructions on food packaging, to ensure that food products are cooked for the right length of time and at the right temperature.  FSA also reinforces the message of eating 5 a day, noting that this will reduce risk of cancer.  They suggest to eat a varied and balanced diet.  Regarding storage of potatoes, it advises that potatoes which are intended to be fried or roasted should be not be stored in the fridge as this can increase overall acrylamide levels, but be stored in a dark, cool place at temperatures above 6oC. 

Steve Wearne, Director of Policy at the Food Standards Agency has stated in a press release that “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.  We want our Go for Gold campaign to highlight the issues so that consumers know how to make the small changes that may reduce their acrylamide consumption.”  

The campaign has attracted a lot of media attention.  According to the BBC, Cancer Research UK acknowledges that acrylamide in food could be linked to cancer, but they note the link is not clear and consistent. David Spiegelhalter, professor for the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University is reported to have said there is no estimate of the current harm caused by acrylamide.   He is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying on the Today Programme: “My concern is that the evidence that this actually causes any harm is weak, it’s extremely weak.  There has been 16 studies trying to show that there is an association of consumption with cancer and none have anything consistent at all.” 

EFSA, on 4 June 2015 published its first full risk assessment of acrylamide (AA) in food.  They note that “The Panel concluded that the current levels of dietary exposure to AA are not of concern with respect to non-neoplastic effects. However, although the epidemiological associations have not demonstrated AA to be a human carcinogen, the margins of exposure (MOEs) indicate a concern for neoplastic effects based on animal evidence.”  The scientific opinion states that “Preferences in home-cooking can have a substantial impact on human dietary AA exposure.”

The Food and Drink Federation state in a press release they are in support of the Go for Gold Campaign, and note that the food industry  “have been working for years to reduce acrylamide in products and provide clear instructions on-pack for consumers to follow when cooking foods at home.”

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