Can burned toast and blackened potatoes lead to cancer? It’s a story making headlines today because of an initiative a UK government agency has taken to highlight a substance found in these products that are a “possible concern” for increased cancer risk.
The compound is called acrylamide and it’s generally formed when you cook up some starchy foods at high temperatures, over 120 degrees. The sugars and amino acids in the foods cause a reaction, the Maillard reaction, which leads to acrylamide.
In lab studies, animals consuming higher amounts of acrylamide get more cancer. Yet human studies on an acrylamide-cancer link are inconclusive.
“More research is needed to fully understand the link between acrylamide and cancer,” says Giota Mitrou, Director of Research Funding at World Cancer Research Fund. (AICR is an affiliate of WCRF.) “Our own research from a large european study did not find any strong evidence that acrylamide affects cancer development.”
“For now, there are so many ways your diet can help lower cancer risk without focusing on acrylamide, one factor the research is unclear about,” says Alice Bender, MS, RDN, AICR Head of Nutrition Programs. “Follow evidence-based steps: eat plenty of fiber-rich plant foods, avoid sugary drinks and processed meats, and eat a diet that will help you stay a healthy weight.”
Maintaining a healthy weight, eating healthy, and exercising can prevent nearly one of three of the most common US cancer cases.
The National Cancer Institute states there is not enough research currently to recommend you change your diet. Their website states: “The best advice at this time is to follow established dietary guidelines and eat a healthy, balanced diet that is low in fat and rich in high-fiber grains, fruits, and vegetables.
If you want to reduce acrylamide in your diet, the Food Standards Agency suggests that you aim for a golden yellow color when baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes and bread. Also, don’t store raw potatoes in the fridge if you are going to cook them at high temperatures, because those cold temperatures may lead to the formation of free sugars.
Acrylamide in foods vary widely depending upon the food and way you cook it. One of the ways most people – at least in the UK – are consuming acrylamide is from potatoes, particularly French fries. The US Food and Drug Administration says that when comparing frying, roasting and baking potatoes, frying leads to higher levels of acrylamide.
For an overall healthful and cancer-protective diet you can read more about the research in AICR’s Foods that Fight Cancer.