It was widely reported last week that Swedish researchers had discovered that some highly starchy cooked foods, including potato chips, French fries, biscuits and bread, contained a chemical called acrylamide--a probable cause of human cancer.
You have questions? So glad you asked.
Question: Oh boy, another food scare. So you're going to tell me not to eat bread or French fries?
Answer: No way. In fact, lead researcher Lief Busk, along with Swedish, British and World Health Organization officials, urged consumers not to make any dietary changes based on this preliminary report. "It's not more dangerous to eat these foods today than it was a year before," Busk said. "There is no reason to be alarmed or to drastically change your eating habits."
Q: So why are news organizations reporting this stuff?
A: Because it's interesting preliminary science about food safety--and the Swedes thought it significant enough to release the information now, before it's been published. Before anybody acts on the thought that these kinds of foods are dangerous, the science will have to be peer-reviewed, replicated, explained, teased out and debated.
Q: So how do those bad things get into the food?
A: Busk says that acrylamide appears to form in carbohydrate-rich foods during cooking. The higher the temperature and the longer a food cooks, the higher the levels of acrylamide. Fried foods had the highest levels, soft breads had the lowest. Low levels were found in pizza, pancakes, waffles, fried fish fingers, meatballs, vegetarian schnitzel and cauliflower gratin.
Q: What if it turns out they're right, that fried starchy foods do have this cancer-causing chemical in them?
A: Experts will probably warn you not to eat much of them, which is pretty much what they say now anyway.
Q: Why is this coming to light now?
A: Science is getting better at measuring all kinds of chemicals in food and water. As Busk notes, this stuff has been there for thousands of years; we just couldn't measure it before. It's not new that harmful substances, even carcinogens, are in food--think of nitrates in hot dogs and trace mercury in tuna. Minute traces of bad things are found throughout the water and food supply. In most foods we eat, the benefits of the nutrients far outweigh the infinitesimal risks from chemical exposure.
Q: Are you about to tell me not to take preliminary scientific information out of context--and remind me that it's far more important to eat a wide variety of foods and not think any of them are magically beneficial or inherently malevolent?
A: Why, yes.