‘Food causes cancer’ stories can seem like a standard stock-in-trade. But it’s very often worth examining the science behind the sometimes alarming headlines.

Today there has been lots of attention on acrylamide (see this in The Sun and The Mirror), following warnings from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that some home-cooked food, such as over-done or burnt toast, fried chips, or well-roasted potatoes, contain more of the potentially carcinogenic chemical.

Chips cooked for longer at higher temperatures contain more acrylamide
Chips cooked for longer at higher temperatures contain more acrylamide

The fundamental research behind this story was spearheaded by the University of Reading back in 2002, when Professor Don Mottram published a paper in Nature showing the process by which acrylamide is created in some cooked food.

An accompanying editorial in Nature News at the same time provided some interesting context. For example:

In rats and fruitflies, acrylamide causes cancerous changes, at concentrations 1,000 times higher than those found an average diet. There is no direct evidence for acrylamide having a similar impact on humans, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer nevertheless classified it as “probably carcinogenic” in 1994

Rats don’t eat heated food. But as humans have been doing so for thousands of years, we may be more tolerant to acrylamide, Mottram suggests. Obesity, diabetes and a lack of fruit and vegetables in Western diets are more serious health threats than acrylamide, he adds.

Reading food scientists have been closely involved in work with the food industry and others ever since. Dr Stephen Elmore, from the Flavour Centre in the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, points out one visible example that you probably didn’t notice was happening before your eyes: crisps sold in Britain today are now noticeably ‘lighter’ in colour than their equivalents a decade or so ago.

So while many food producers have made strides to reduce acrylamide levels, most people don’t consider it when cooking at home. Dr Elmore added:

Although the potential threat of acrylamide has been reported in the news numerous times since its discovery, for some reason the UK public in general has failed to take on board this message. As a result they may be consuming more acrylamide than they should when preparing food at home.

The FSA are aware of this disparity between home-cooked and ready-to-eat foods and are trying to address this.

Read more about Reading’s work to reduce acrylamide levels in French fries >