Health

'One of the greatest food dangers is to be scared about our food,' chemist says

Consumers may wonder how worried they should be about a substance found in burnt toast and fries that could be hazardous to health.

Eating highly toasted bread could be a risk but for most people the risk is minimal

Consumers are advised to cook foods to a golden colour instead of brown. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

Consumers may wonder how worried they should be about a substance found in burnt toast and fries that could be hazardous to health. The question came up again to Health Canada this week after a UK food regulator launched a campaign to reduce exposure to acrylamide. 

Browned toast and darkly fried potatoes carry more acrylamide, a potential human health concern that should be minimized, according to Health Canada.

The UK Food Standards Agency said that acrylamide — produced when starchy foods are roasted, baked, fried or grilled for too long at high temperatures — has been found in animal studies to increase the risk of cancer.

Health Canada has reviewed data from the food industry as well surveillance results from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The department "found no consistent increase or decrease in acrylamide concentrations over the last five year in foods," a spokeswoman said in an emailed response to questions. "A summary of this information is being finalized and will be published on Health Canada's website in early 2017."

The UK agency advised consumers to cook these foods to a golden colour instead of brown.

Health Canada said its assessment in 2012 showed dietary exposure to acrylamide in Canada is lower than the global level reported by the United Nations. "Nonetheless, Health Canada is of the view that dietary exposure to acrylamide represents a potential human health concern and has published on its website advice on how Canadians can minimize their exposure to acrylamide in foods."

Shade of your toast 

Canadians are generally advised to eat fried or deep-fried foods and snacks such as French fries and potato chips less often.

"The basic question comes down to whether cancer risk is reduced by cutting down on acrylamide through the simple measures usually suggested namely to 'go for the gold,'" said Joe Schwarcz of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal.

"This means toasting bread and frying potatoes to a gold, rather than dark brown colour. One can demonstrate that dark toast has more acrylamide than light toast, but does this really matter in the context of an overall diet?"

Many foods contain acrylamide, so the chemical can't be avoided, Schwarcz said. 

The shade of your toast matters less than the jam you put on it, says Joe Schwarcz. (License to Farm)

"Coffee contains levels close to French fries and potato chips, and given the amounts consumed, represents a far greater intake. Yet, coffee has not been associated with cancer. "

Some experts say consumers should direct their efforts on addressing well-established hazards and patterns, such as smoking, drinking and obesity.

"Evidence from animal studies shows that acrylamide has the potential to interact with the DNA in our cells, so could be linked to cancer," the charity Cancer Research UK said in a response to the British food agency's announcement.

"However, evidence from human studies has shown that, for most cancer types, there is no link between acrylamide and cancer risk."

Schwarcz's colleague, Prof. Ariel Fenster, said if people are concerned, they could toast bread to a lighter colour.

"I think maybe one of the greatest food dangers is to be scared about our food," Fenster said in an interview on Friday.

"Something might be toxic but it depends on the amount. For instance, in the case of toasted bread, it is true maybe if you eat a lot of bread that is highly toasted it could be a risk but for most people the risk is really minimal."

​When it comes to reducing risk, Schwarcz said the best advice is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables with their array of anti-carcinogens. And cut down on sugar, fried foods and meat cooked at high temperatures. "The shade of your toast matters less than the jam you put on it."

With files from Reuters