We’ve known for some time that charred, overcooked meat is linked to cancer, but what about burnt toast?
Earlier this year, news headlines spread fear among us that our humble piece of toast could be upping our risk of cancer. Toasting, baking and roasting are cooking methods we all use regularly, so should we be worried?
The story that incited the scary headlines arose from a consumer campaign launched by the UK’s Food Standards Agency. It was all to do with the chemical acrylamide. Acra-what? While it sounds like something produced in a lab, acrylamide is actually a natural by-product of cooked foods, especially starchy foods like bread. That lovely, golden-brown colour your food turns with toasting and roasting is the reaction driving the formation of acrylamide. The darker the colour, the more acrylamide.
The new consumer campaign on reducing your exposure to acrylamide is based on long-standing evidence from animal studies linking it to cancer. For humans, the same cancer link has yet to be seen, but the possibility cannot be excluded.
A recent scientific review concluded that dietary sources of acrylamide are not linked to the risk of most common cancers in humans, so if there is a risk, it’s likely small and difficult to detect.
Weighing up the risk
The American Cancer Society lists acrylamide as a ‘probable carcinogen’. But the full list of things in our environment that are probable carcinogens would be so long that it would leave a person in fear of eating, and wanting to retreat into a cave to hide from the modern world.
Cancer risk is about appreciating the big players for the ones you can control. Smoking, alcohol, physical inactivity, too much time in the sun, obesity and a poor diet are at the top of the list.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect about the acrylamide warning was that there was nothing in it that health and food-regulatory agencies in Australia, Europe and the US had not raised before. However, the new angle was the stronger wording and clearly defined advice on reducing exposure.
Making sense of it all
Our local food regulator, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), keeps a close eye on developments to do with acrylamide and health. Dietary surveys find that Australians eat only a small amount of acrylamide, but it’s within a range considered to be of possible concern, so it’s worth thinking about how you could lower your exposure.
Toast, hot potato chips, potato crisps, roasted potatoes and biscuits are the key foods where you will find acrylamide. There is no need to eliminate these foods; just be mindful that they should not make up a large part of your diet. Already, food regulators are working with industry to find ways to reduce acrylamide in packaged food.
How to reduce your acrylamide exposure
Aim for a yellow or golden-brown colour when frying, roasting or baking.
Toast bread and other foods to the lightest colour acceptable to your taste.
Don’t store potatoes in the fridge or exposed to light, as this can increase acrylamide levels.
Soak raw potatoes in cold water for 15-30 minutes, or blanch in a saucepan of boiling water before frying or roasting. This helps reduce the components that promote acrylamide formation.
Cook potato products, such as oven fries, hash browns and roast potatoes, in a moderate oven (180°–190°C) to a light golden colour only. Deep-fried potato chips should be cooked at a maximum of 175°C. Chunkier-style chips are preferable.