Eating potato chips, well-browned roast potatoes and toast that is more than lightly grilled can increase the risk of cancer, according to a public health campaign urging people to change their eating and cooking habits.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK says people are consuming too much acrylamide, a chemical produced naturally as a result of cooking starchy foods at high temperatures.
Acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in animals and while it has not been conclusively produced to have the same effect in humans, the scientific consensus is that it is likely to do so.
The FSA insists that it does not want to scare anyone and would not describe the risk as significant but nevertheless said it is one that most people can readily reduce.
“We’re not saying avoid particular foods or groups of foods but vary your diet so you smooth out your risk. We are not saying to people to worry about the occasional piece of food or meal that’s overcooked. This is about managing risk across your lifetime.”
The warning relates to foods that are high in starch, with potatoes, including sweet potatoes, the biggest staple affected. But it also covers other root vegetables, crackers, cereals, including cereal-based baby food, bread, biscuits and coffee. There is no safe threshold defined in humans but the FSA says research suggests people in all age groups are eating more than its experts are comfortable with and are unaware of the risks.
Cath Mulholland, a senior adviser at the FSA, said: “If you’re living on crisps (potato chips), burnt toast, whatever, that’s going to be more risky than a healthy diet. It’s not a high level of risk but it’s higher than is comfortable.”
People are also being advised to eat a varied diet, carefully follow cooking instructions and not to keep raw potatoes in the fridge if they intend to roast or fry them as this can increase acrylamide levels. Instead, raw potatoes should be stored in a dark, cool temperature above 6C.
The potentially carcinogenic nature of acrylamide in food was first highlighted by a Swedish study in 2002. It differs from warnings relating to barbecuing meat, which are concerned with another substance called benzopyrene.