Do Dark Toast And Crispy Potatoes Really Cause Cancer?

A new awareness campaign started again on Monday, June 12, 2017, aimed at reminding people that cooking starchy foods improperly can increase their risk of cancer. The increased risk of cancer has been known since 2002, but people are creatures with short memories, especially when it comes to unpleasant facts. Reminding us that those crispy hash browns with their golden brown crunch and bits of char increase our risk of cancer definitely counts as an unpleasant fact.

Still, the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom has opted for a “Go for Gold” message in its most recent campaign to remind consumers of the increased cancer risks involved in cooking potatoes and other starch-heavy foods to a dark brown or even black color. The culprit in this case is a compound that is formed from the reaction of simple sugars and a particular amino acid called asparagine. When the foods are heated above 120 degrees Celsius (250 degrees Fahrenheit), they start to form acrylamide. This compound is what gives bread or potatoes that particular golden hue when they are baked or cooked. However, as the food is cooked longer and begins to darken, it produces more and more acrylamide, leading to higher risks of cancer.

overcooking potatoes forms a carcinogen acrylamide
The longer you cook french fries, the more carcinogens they have. [Image by Unchalee Khun/Shutterstock]

The British campaign is directed at raising people’s awareness of the risks that eating these types of foods presents. The agency running the program is the Food Standards Agency, which is the UK equivalent to the FDA in the United States. The director of policy there, Steve Wearne, says that in studies conducted in the UK, the majority of people are not aware of acrylamide or the dangers it possesses, or more importantly, how to reduce their consumption of it, thus reducing their risk for cancer. The agency then wants to let people know that if they make some small changes to how they prepare their foods, they can reduce their acrylamide intake and still maintain the recommended intake of starchy foods.

Some highlights according to the campaign follow.

  • When baking, frying, or roasting starchy foods, stop cooking when the exterior is a light golden brown.
  • Continue to eat a balanced diet as recommended by the FSA and FDA.
  • Avoid storing potatoes in the refrigerator before cooking, as this increases the amount of acrylamide that forms during cooking.
  • Follow the cooking instructions on all prepackaged foods.

What Is The Cancer Risk?

There haven’t been any human trials to test the increased risk of cancer from consuming overcooked starchy foods and the resulting acrylamide. That’s because there is no way to reliably expose a study group to the chemical to gauge the results. After all, no one would willingly eat the amount of acrylamide necessary to create a coherent study.

However, according to Donald Mottram, a professor of food chemistry at the University of Reading in England, because acrylamide is shown to be carcinogenic in laboratory animals, it would definitely be carcinogenic in humans.

It was actually Mottram’s team in 2002 that first identified how acrylamide is formed in starchy foods as part of the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is the chemical process that gives the starchy foods their crunchy texture that many people find so appealing.

health authorities in britain are reminding people of the cancer risks of eating dark toast
Breakfast now increases your risk for cancer, if you like dark toast and coffee. [Image by Kutsenko Denis/Shutterstock]

In the United States, the FDA has joined with the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) to declare that acrylamide is a human health concern because of its carcinogenic properties in lab animals. They also want to conduct long-term studies in the future.

Like it or not, people have been consuming acrylamide since the dawn of time. It was only recently detected in foods in 2002 and its carcinogenic properties found. It is found in any starchy foods that are roasted, fried, or baked to a dark color, including beans, potatoes, breads, and grains. Because there is no way to completely prevent its formation in these foods, the FDA and other food agencies around the world don’t recommend that people stop eating these foods, but instead continue to eat a healthy and balanced diet.

[Featured Image by marchevcabogdan/Shutterstock]