Crispy French fries and crunchy potato chips were never health foods, what with all the calories, fat and salt. But consumers just got a reminder that there's one more thing to worry about when they indulge in such foods: a chemical called acrylamide that might cause cancer.
For more than a decade, scientists have known that acrylamide forms when potatoes, cereal grains and some other plant foods are browned through frying, baking or roasting. That means it shows up in fries, chips, breakfast cereals, toasted bread, cookies, crackers and even coffee. Studies show the chemical can cause cancer in rodents at high doses. In humans, the cancer risk remains unclear, but health agencies around the world are concerned and calling for more study.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration took the latest step to address the potential risk when it released draft guidelines for the food industry. For example, FDA is urging potato growers to favor low-sugar varieties that produce less acrylamide and urging processors to decrease frying temperatures, tweak ingredients and avoid certain storage practices. Even cutting thicker fries and chips can help, FDA says.
Though the guidelines will not be binding, many companies already are making such changes and developing new ways to reduce the chemical, says Beth Johnson, a registered dietitian who is a consultant to the Snack Food Association, Washington, D.C.
"This has been a large focus of the industry for many years," she says. "Lots of time and money has gone into it."
Frozen potato makers have been particularly focused on reducing acrylamide, says Corey Henry, vice president of communications for the American Frozen Food Institute, McLean, Va. "Right now we are looking at the FDA guidance to see if there are opportunities to take additional actions," he says.
Henry notes that manufacturers long ago added package instructions advising consumers and restaurant workers to cook frozen fries only to "a light golden color" because of acrylamide concerns.
But no one is talking about eliminating acrylamide, which is in foods that make up 40% of calories in a typical American diet, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The goal is to reach levels "as low as reasonably possible," Johnson says - without ending up with soft potato chips or other products consumers would not want.
Food companies should follow the new guidelines, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C. But, he says, FDA could do more by setting specific acrylamide limits for foods and by making sure best practices are widely adopted.
Of course, one way consumers could reduce exposure would be to stop eating a long list of popular foods. Given the uncertain risk, FDA is not saying people should do that, but it is offering tips to those who are concerned. For example, the agency says home cooks can keep raw potatoes out of the refrigerator, soak potatoes in water before frying them, take frozen fries out of the oven sooner and avoid burnt toast. In general, the crispier and browner your food is, the higher the acrylamide level will be.
FDA says consumers should not give up healthful whole grain cereals just because they might contain acrylamide, and should focus on a diet that is healthy overall. That's a diet heavy on fruits and vegetables and light on saturated fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol - which eliminates a lot of French fries and cookies anyway.
But is a theoretical cancer risk a good enough reason to consign yourself to a life of boiled potatoes and light brown toast?
"For consumers it is a tough issue," because most of the acrylamide in the food supply is in processed and restaurant foods, Jacobson says. And, he says, acrylamide is "a modest concern," compared to salt, trans fat and saturated fat.
"In truth, most consumers are not going to worry about it," he says. While it might be worth the moment it takes to turn down your toaster setting, he says, "people should wear seat belts, stop smoking and eat less salty foods if they really want to protect themselves."
Here's more advice from FDA on three common foods:
All potatoes are not created equal: There's little or no acrylamide in boiled or microwaved potatoes. If you want to reduce your exposure, the next best method is baking them whole, followed by roasting pieces. Worst: frying.
How to make toast: If you are worried about acrylamide, you will keep it light brown. Darker brown or burnt toast contains more of the chemical.
What about coffee? Acrylamide forms when the beans are roasted, not when the coffee is brewed, so there's not much consumers can do. Robusta and light roast beans have somewhat higher levels than arabica and dark roast beans, but levels also are affected by storage times.