Thursday, 9 March 2017

The year of acrylamide

You may fondly recall the scare story about roast potatoes that made everybody roll their eyes back in January. The villain of the piece was acrylamide, a chemical that is created when carbohydrates are cooked. It is not just roast potatoes, but french fries, biscuits, toasts and many other food stuffs that can generate acrylamide. It can cause cancer in mice, but only at very high doses (‘as much as 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods’, according to the American Cancer Society.)

Nevertheless, the Food Standards Agency tried to generate a bit of hysteria by warning about this supposedly new cancer threat. As I said at the time:

We simply do not know whether acrylamide in food causes cancer in humans. Even if it does, we do not know what a safe level of consumption is. The Food Standards Agency’s assumption that people would benefit from reducing their consumption of roast potatoes and toast is just that — an assumption. It is the precautionary principle on steroids. Further research would be welcome, but it is not the job of the FSA to pre-empt it. We have organisations like the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to weigh the evidence and assess risk. They found ‘inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of acrylamide’. The FSA has gone way beyond its remit by issuing its scare story today.

It later transpired the European Commission is planning to regulate acrylamide in 2017 and a host of the usual pressure groups are campaigning for tough legislation, ie. excessive bans based on the precautionary principle regardless of costs. By accident or design, the FSA was clearing the path for the EU.

This week, two more pressure groups have added their voices to the mix...

Carcinogens found in British baby food and Belgian fries

Two new surveys have found high levels of acrylamide, a known carcinogen, in UK-made baby biscuits and Belgium’s favourite fast food.

...The Changing Markets Foundation and NGO SumOfUs, looked at 48 types of biscuits, including well-known brands like Little Dish and Ella’s Kitchen. The highest acrylamide levels were found in Little Dish biscuits, with levels almost 5 times higher than the European benchmark and 30 times higher than products with the lowest concentrations of acrylamide.

...In the meantime, Changing Markets and Brussels-area news service BRUZZ conducted a similar investigation last month (23 February) of Belgian fries sold in the capital. They found that 15% of the food business surveyed sell fries with high levels of acrylamide, exceeding the European benchmark of 600 µg/kg.

The highest acrylamide level found in the survey was 670 µg/kg, over six times higher than the lowest at 100 µg/kg, followed by two samples at 660 and 620 µg/kg.

I haven't seen either of these studies (if they are studies), but if the highest acrylamide level in french fries is only 10 per cent over the benchmark I doubt that it is much to worry about, since the benchmark is arbitrary in the first place (we don't know for sure that acrylamide causes cancer in humans at all, let alone at what level).

As I mentioned in January, the American Cancer Society, European Food Safety Authority and International Agency for Research on Cancer have all found insufficient evidence to declare that acrylamide, as typically found in food products, increase the risk of cancer. It is rather suspicious that non-scientific pressure groups are suddenly coming out of the woodwork with press releases like this just when the EU is looking to regulate.

The two organisations involved are hardly specialists in this area. Changing Markets specialises in 'campaigns that shift market share away from unsustainable products and companies' and when I visited SumofUs's website (slogan: 'people over profits') I was greeted with a pop-up telling me that 'SumOfUs exists to put bad corporations back in their place'. Apparently, their mission is to 'tame corporate beasts like Pepsi, Nestlé and Monsanto.'

Each to their own, obviously, but it is fair to say that identifying cancer risks is not these group's main area of interest or expertise. I suspect that we are going to see more activist science of this sort as the EU's decision gets closer.

Meanwhile, you might be interested in this paper on acrylamide from the American Council on Science and Health from 2003. The acrylamide scare might be new in Europe, but it has been going on in the USA ever since the chemical was discovered in food in 2002 (despite this, the FDA does not set legal limits on acrylamide in food).

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