Panic swept breakfast tables up and down the UK as health officials warned that eating overcooked starchy foods – like burnt toast – could be linked to cancer.
This is because the combination of sugar, water and amino acids in certain foods, which causes the browning process when heated, produces acrylamide as a by-product. Acrylamide is a carcinogen – a substance that is toxic to DNA and can cause cancer.
As a result, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is encouraging people only to toast their bread, bake their cakes or roast their potatoes until golden.
“If you slightly overdo your roast potatoes on a Sunday, it’s not that you have to throw them away,” Gavin Shears, a senior policy adviser in contaminants at the FSA, said.
“We’re not asking people to cut out certain foods. This is about reducing your overall lifetime risk through simple steps.”
Here’s the advice the FSA has given thus far:
- Go for a golden yellow colour when toasting, frying, baking, or roasting starchy foods such as potatoes, bread and root vegetables
- Don’t keep raw potatoes in the fridge – store them in a cool, dark place above 6C instead
- Follow the cooking instructions carefully when heating oven chips, pizzas, roast potatoes and parsnips
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes five portions of vegetables and fruit per day as well as starchy carbohydrates.
So how worried should we really be about eating the burnt bits?
The FSA itself has admitted that it isn’t sure how much acrylamide the human body can actually withstand before it becomes toxic. While studies on mice have shown that acrylamide consumption caused cancer and neurological damage in some cases, similar studies on human consumption have proved inconclusive.
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“Even adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide would need to consume 160 times as much to reach a level that might cause increased tumours in mice,” Professor Spiegelhalter, professor for the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, wrote in a blog post.
“The FSA provide no estimate of the current harm caused by acrylamide, nor the benefit from any reduction due to people following their advice.”
Emma Shields, health information officer from Cancer Research UK, acknowledges that acrylamide in foods like burnt toast could be linked to cancer in humans, but said there were other well-established risk factors for cancer which have a greater impact, like smoking, obesity and excessive alcohol consumption.
“To be on the safe side, people can reduce their exposure by following a normal healthy, balanced diet – which includes eating fewer high calorie foods like crisps, chips and biscuits, which are the major sources of acrylamide,” she told the BBC.
Our take on it? It can’t harm anyone to follow the FSA’s advice, just do so with a pinch of salt. Though not a large one – excessive salt consumption is also pretty bad for you.