CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH » ACRYLAMIDE
Some acrylamide with your fries?
Broadcast: January 14, 2003 | Reporter:
Wendy Mesley; Producer: Michael Gruzuk; Researcher: Colman Jones
Acrylamide is a chemical
in foods -such as french fries, potato chips and cereals-
that could lead to cancer
Acrylamide is used in making synthetic
rubber and plastic. But the discovery of acrylamide in food
is so new, no one knows if the levels found are safe. What is
known is that acrylamide causes cancer in animals.
On April 24, 2002, acrylamide made headlines in Sweden with
a scary story outlining the cancer link. But in the days that
followed, the story dropped like a stone — at least
The day after the Swedish headlines, Ottawa said: “We
are taking this matter seriously … we are reviewing
the Swedish findings." Weeks went by, and people like
the Siegel family in Richmond Hill, Ontario, say they heard
no updates on the story. Like most Canadians, the Siegels
like their fries.
"You get complacent about warnings you hear in the media,"
Isabel Siegel tells Marketplace.
Immediately after its big discovery, Sweden took action,
acrylamide levels in many Swedish foods. Soon after,
so did the British government, saying it wanted to let consumers
make their own decisions. The German government tested products
and showed its people which foods have the highest levels.
And Norway unveiled specific brand results — warnings
that acrylamide could be responsible for 30 cancer cases a
Anne McLellan received a briefing note on acrylamide the day after
the Swedish study made headlines
In Canada, nothing of the kind happened. "It kind of
makes you wonder if they have better priorities in those places,"
Whatever the Canadian government knew at the time about
the dangers of acrylamide in Canadian food — it wasn't
telling the public. Marketplace used the Access
to Information Act and asked to see Health Canada’s
internal documents on acrylamide. We got back hundreds of
pages of documents that show the government was treating
the issue seriously
— but also show just how much information they hadn’t
shared with Canadians.
The documents start April 25, 2002, the day after the announcement
from Sweden. There's a briefing note written for Health Minister
Anne McLellan which says, “We recognize there may be
health hazards associated with this chemical and are undertaking
an assessment to determine strategies to protect Canadians
Health Canada scientists also advise that the respected
International Agency for Research on Cancer says, “Acrylamide
induces gene mutations and has been found in animal tests
to cause various benign and malignant tumours.”
The health minister is told that "acrylamide is categorized
as a probable human carcinogen.” But did McLellan share
this information with Canadians? No.
In Washington, D.C., Dr. Michael Jacobson runs the Center
for Science in the Public Interest, a 30-year-old advocacy
group that fights for consumers' rights. Jacobson says Health
Canada has a duty to tell Canadians there’s a potential
risk: "We've been getting cancer for eons and it's
likely acrylamide has been causing some of those cancers."
Jacobson’s group did a rough calculation of how many
Canadians might get acrylamide-induced cancer, by applying
the animal data to the Canadian population. Based on that,
there could be "several hundred [cases] a year and tens
of thousands of people over the life time of Canadians,"
High temperatures, high levels
"We recommend a
balanced diet for Canadians." Health Canada's Dr.
Thanks to the Swedes, we now know that acrylamide is created
when high carbohydrate foods are baked or fried at high temperatures.
German scientists identified 175 degrees Celsius as a big
turning point (fries cooked at 175 had 300 micrograms of acrylamide
per kilogram, but when you raise the temperature just five
degrees to 180, the acrylamide levels almost quadruple to
The German government was pro-active, advising restaurants
to lower the temperature on their deep fryers, and informing
appliance manufacturers of their findings. It also distributed
flyers full of safe cooking tips for families. Ottawa did
not do the same for Canadian families and restaurants.
"We consider it a serious issue and we’re working
on itcarefully," Dr. Jim Lawrence, one of nine people
assigned to Health Canada's acrylamide team, told Marketplace.
"What we do know is that people are not dying on the
streets from eating french fries."
Lawrence pins a lot of credibility on studies done years
ago on people working with acrylamide who had inhaled the
chemical. The studies did not prove a cancer risk —
but both the World Health Organization and the European Commission
say these studies are not comparable to a lifetime of eating
"From all the evidence we have, we continue to recommend
a balanced diet for Canadians. That’s the best advice
we can give right now," Lawrence said.
"I think it’s very clear that government is being
very cautious about offending the fast food industry, the
potato chip industry, and some others," Dr. Michael Jacobson
of the [U.S.] Center for Science in the Public Interest said.
"Industry is arguing that that there is no proof that
this is causing cancer in humans — only in animals."
Some of the highest acrylamide levels
in the world
It turns out the Canadian government has a pretty good idea
how much acrylamide is in some of our foods. When we acquired
internal government documents, we found that in May and June
of 2002, Health Canada tested Canadian chips and french fries
and found some of the highest acrylamide results in the world.
But again, they didn’t share those numbers with Canadians.
The internal documents show test results for acrylamide on
several products, with concentrations reaching 1,900 parts
per billion in fries. In chips, acrylamide levels as high
as 3,700 parts per billion were recorded.
"I'll bet the guy who did the tests has switched
brands." Michael Jacobson, [U.S.] Center for Science
in the Public Interest
Marketplace can’t tell you which brand of
chips got the 3,700 score because —even in the internal
documents— the brand name is not revealed. The documents
identify the manufactures as coded numbers, from one to six.
We can tell you that 3,700 parts per billion is a concentration
more than 7,000 times higher than what the World Health Organization
accepts in a glass of water. Again, we can’t tell you
if 3,700 is safe because there is no accepted limit for acrylamide
Jacobson says the Canadian public paid for those tests and
has a right to the information: "Canadian consumers need
that information so that they can switch from one brand to
another. I’ll bet the guy who did the tests has switched
University of Guelph nutritional scientist Bruce Holub wants
to know why Health Canada hasn't released its information
on acrylamide. He says it should be available: "If I
choose to restrict my intake of these foods based on acrylamide
contents, I can then do so. Without the information I’m
really in a food nutritional minefield."
Info shared ... with the food industry
Laurie Curry, Food and Consumer Product Manufacturers
In July, 2002, Health Canada shared its confidential data
with someone. Just weeks after they did their tests, a director
at Health Canada e-mailed a senior representative for the
Food and Consumer Product Manufacturers of Canada, which represents
chip and fry companies like McCains, Hostess, Frito Lay and
“We should share our acrylamide
method with you and your organization … a draft version
is attached … as are some limited preliminary results.”
Jacobson calls it shameful that Health Canada offered to
share the information with manufacturers but not the Canadian
We visited Laurie Curry, spokesperson for the industry
group on the receiving end of those e-mails. She said Health
Canada had not shared the information so far. The association
later admitted the information had been shared with one of
Currie’s colleagues — but that the data in that
e-mail was just preliminary.
Finally in September, Health Canada posted a backgrounder
on acrylamide on its website, saying acrylamide causes cancer
in lab animals but there's no evidence of a cancer link in
humans. But again, no test results are offered, nor were there
any calls for change in either diet or cooking methods.
A month later, after months of e-mails to and from Health
Canada, a group from the food manufacturers association meet
face to face with Health Canada officials in Ottawa. We got
our hands on the list of participants and the agenda.
Manufacturers including McCain's, Kellogg, Nestlé
and Kraft were either in the room or hooked up by conference
call. Health Canada's Jim Lawrence says the findings were
discussed, but no specific brands were identified.
Lawrence says there has been no pressure from industry about
their brands being identified: "We're out to protect
the consumer. And if down the road, acrylamide is shown to
be a human health concern, they're going to have to take appropriate
action — and they know that."
Americans publish acrylamide levels
Until now, only the Europeans have been more open than the
Canadians on acrylamide. That's changing in the U.S. —the
home of the french fry— where they’ve shared their
test results with the public. In December 2002, the Food and
Drug Administration published the acrylamide levels in hundreds
of specific brands of fries, cereals and chips.
Marketplace tested cereals, fries and chips
The FDA found acrylamide in lots of big name American brands
that are available here, too, like Cheerios, Lay’s,
McDonald's and KFC.
And while Health Canada might never tell us about acrylamide
levels in specific foods on Canadian shelves, Marketplace
The Marketplace acrylamide
Marketplace did our own testing at a certified
lab. We bought top-selling U.S. and Canadian fries, chips
and cereals available across the country. We also chose an
organic option of each — similar foods to what Health
Canada tested. The only difference is we will tell you what
we found, although you should remember that even scientific
experts don’t know what a safe level of acrylamide in
food might be.
We found acrylamide in every food we
tested. (We only did single samples of each, so these
numbers don’t guarantee that these products will have
the same levels when you buy them.)
The chips — Old Dutch, Lay's and Miss Vickie's —
read over 600 parts per billion of acrylamide. The lowest
option we tested — Sun Chips — came in at 360.
And the 100 per cent Organic Kettle Chips are more than double
the others, at 1,690 parts per billion.
As for french fries, the results were:
- McDonald’s: 730
- NY Fries: 780
- Harvey’s: 290
- McCain: 1040
- Homemade: 510
"Let's take a preventive strategy."
Bruce Holub, University of Guelph nutrition professor
The numbers for the cereals we tested were generally lower.
But some families eat cereal several days a week. And consider
the diet of your average Canadian child: it could be cereal
in the morning, fries at lunch and chips in the evening.
“It might or might not be a cancer-causing agent in
humans based on level of consumption but in the meantime until
we know better, please curtail your consumption of these,"
says Bruce Holub, a nutritional scientist a the University
of Guelph. "Let’s take a preventative strategy
rather than having to take a sledgehammer later on if it proves
to be a Canadian problem with respect to cancer risk."
In California, a group called Council for Education and Research
on Toxics filed a lawsuit in September, 2002, against McDonald's
and Burger King, claiming that if they are knowingly selling
fries with acrylamide they should have a legal obligation
to tell consumers — via a cancer warning.
Putting a spin on acrylamide
When government and industry get together, we know they talk
about science — but the internal documents Marketplace
obtained show they also talk about public relations. Last
fall, another acrylamide meeting was held in Chicago, attended
by representatives from McDonald’s, Frito Lay, and McCain.
A representative from the Canadian Food Manufacturers Association
was also there — as was Health Canada.
Out of that meeting came a risk management document which
details questions about how to handle the acrylamide story.
Here’s what the committee wrote:
“The public does not appear excited about acrylamide
in foods at this point. What could change this sentiment?
Could/should anything be done in advance to try to make
the issue less prone to going 'critical?'"
Potatoes may hold a clue
about levels of acrylamide
"Clearly they are afraid of the public getting their
hands on brand name information about foods and criticizing
a particular brand," Michael Jacobson said," such
as that vendor number four of potato chips with 3,700 ppb
of acrylamide. That’s a lot. They don’t want
their name in the headlines."
There is one piece of this puzzle that the government is
happy to share. It turns out that Health Canada has made an
important breakthrough in researching how acrylamide is formed:
the levels of the chemical depend on a natural amino acid
called asparagine that is found in food like potatoes.
It's news that could help manufacturers lower acrylamide
levels in their food. Not surprisingly, Health Canada was
quick to publicize its files on that. We're still waiting
for the data on levels of acrylamide in our food.
When can we expect an announcement from industry or Health
Canada? Jim Lawrence says it could be a year or two.
"We don’t want to create a situation where Canadians
are unnecessarily changing their dietary habits, or their
food purchasing habits at this point in time," Laurie
Curry of the Food and Consumer Product Manufacturers of Canada
We contacted the companies that make the products we tested.
Several got back to us, said they're looking into acrylamide
levels and ways to reduce them. But none told us they were
implementing any specific changes to their products at this
is acrylamide? »