‘Killer spuds’ cancer warning sparks risk row

Dark sides: The browning of crispy roast potatoes also produces the chemical acrylamide.

Do roast potatoes, burnt toast and crisps really cause cancer? The British government has launched a campaign advising people to cut down. Many have ridiculed it as a scare story.

What’s happening

‘If you want to stay healthy, don’t brown your toast.’ ‘Cancer risk in crispy roast potatoes.’ These are headlines from British newspapers following new guidelines which warn against burning food like toast and potatoes. Scientists believe that such burning may cause a cancer risk in humans.

Find out more

Toast, potatoes and doughnuts are high in starch. And according to the Food Standards Agency, when starchy foods are cooked for too long at high temperatures they produce a chemical called acrylamide. The more brown the foods become, the more acrylamide is present. High levels of the chemical have been found to cause cancer in mice.

There is one problem: scientists have found no strong evidence linking acrylamide and cancer. Studies with mice are not the same as studies with people.

In light of all this, telling people it causes cancer is ‘a dumb thing to say’, said the celebrity chef Raymond Blanc. Or, as a Cambridge professor put it, ‘many things in life may increase risk, but it’s the size of the risk that makes it important.’

Some say…

This is a sensible warning. Eating burnt toast may not be as bad as smoking, but scientists still think there is a small risk in eating such food burnt; and they have a duty to tell people that. They never said that we should give up potatoes, just that we should cook them carefully to be on the safe side. This is the point of scientific research.

Others think…

Enough with the scare stories. Don’t we have enough to worry about without adding potatoes to the list? Red wine, chocolate, kale — it feels like every other day, there is another study giving dubious advice about what we should or should not eat to stay healthy. The only advice anyone really needs is ‘eat a balanced diet’.

You Decide

  1. Are we given too much advice about food in general?

Activities

  1. Create a poster which gives nutritional advice to one of your friends.

Some People Say...

“Most expert advice is rubbish.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Starch
A complex carbohydrate present in many foods.
Acrylamide
A chemical produced when water, sugar and amino acids in food are combined during the cooking process. This also changes the food’s colour, and creates new flavours and smells.
Kale
A vegetable with green or purple leaves similar to cabbage, a healthy source of minerals and vitamins; but it can contain metals bad for you if consumed in very large amounts.
Dubious
Doubtful, not to be relied upon, possibly untrue.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.