A Clue to the Link Between Fried Foods and Cancer
Canada’s government has discovered a possible link between fried foods and cancer. Scientists have announced that a clue may exist as to the chemical reaction that might cause fried foods to dangerously elevate the levels of acrylamide. Acrylamide is used to purify drinking water and to produce plastics and dyes. Acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, but its carcinogenic effects in humans is not yet known. It is worrisome enough, however, that the United States Food and Drug Administration has made the study of acrylamide one of its highest research priorities.
The reaction involves heating a combination of asparagine, a naturally occurring amino acid, and certain sugars, such as glucose, to form acrylamide. Swedish scientists, who estimate that foodborne acrylamide may be responsible for several hundred cases of cancer in that country each year, first announced the presence of high levels of acrylamide in common foods last spring. These findings were confirmed in June by British, Norwegian, and Swiss governments. It was Canada’s government that discovered the asparagine-sugar reaction as the possible cause of the elevated levels of acrylamide in these foods. Corporate scientists in the United States claim to have noticed the asparagine-sugar link, too. British and Swiss scientists have also reported discovering this link in the Nature journal.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been careful to note that acrylamide is still only a suspected carcinogen. The FDA has stopped short of advising consumers to modify their dietary consumption of foods containing high levels of acrylamide. Many scientists, however, believe that it would be prudent for people to avoid consuming foods that are high in acrylamide. High levels of acrylamide are commonly found in high-carbohydrate foods that are fried or baked at high temperatures, such as potato chips, french fries and certain types of breakfast cereals. Acrylamide levels are lower in the same foods when those foods are prepared by cooking methods that use lower temperatures, such as boiling. Furthermore, some brands have been found to contain lower levels of acrylamide than other brands. In foods like potato chips, this could be explained because different varieties of potatoes contain different levels of asparagine and glucose. The FDA is scheduled to complete the testing of different foods sometime next year, but it is unclear as to whether or not they will release which brands are the highest in acrylamide levels. The FDA does encourage people to eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, to ensure adequate nutrition.
Stadler, R. H., Blank, I., Varga, N., Robert, F., Hau, J., Guy, P. A., Robert, M. & Riediker, S. (2002). Food chemistry: Acrylamide is formed in the Maillard reaction. Nature, 419, 449-450.