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Boiling Best Bet to Avoid Harmful Food By-Product

Chemical is found in some favorite foods, like french fries and potato chips

MONDAY, July 29, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The best bet to avoid the cancer-causing chemical acrylamide created during cooking is to boil your food, according to a report by Swedish researchers.

Of course, that impractical suggestion would leave many taste buds begging for mercy. But it underscores the pickle caused by recent revelations that much of what we eat -- especially baked and fried goods, such as french fries -- contains acrylamide when cooked at high temperatures. The substance has been linked to cancer in lab animals, though there's no agreement on what levels are harmful to humans.

Earlier this summer, a panel for the World Health Organization and the United Nations called the presence of the chemical a "serious problem" that merited further study. However, the group stopped short of advising people to reduce their intake of things like bread, potato chips, and other foods heavy in acrylamide.

That judgment was based in large part on work by environmental chemists at Stockholm University, whose study results appear for the first time in a peer-reviewed publication, the Aug. 14 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Until recently, scientists believed that smoking was the principal source of acrylamide exposure. But a Swedish study showed that even nonsmokers could have high levels of the substance.

So the Stockholm University group sought to learn how much of the chemical enters the body through cooked food. In one study, they showed that rats fed fried feed for one or two months had more than those on a regular diet.

The new report extends that work to address factors that influence acrylamide formation in various foods, especially cooking times and temperature.

Frying and baking brought out the most acrylamide, particularly in carbohydrate-laden and potato products like french fries, potato pancakes, and chips. And while protein-rich foods like beef and fish tended to have levels of acrylamide 10 to 100 times lower than that in potatoes, the quantity rose with cooking temperature.

Cooking for nearly 20 minutes at the boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit didn't change the acrylamide content of potatoes, the researchers said. However, the chemical's concentration did rise markedly at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

The researchers couldn't detect acrylamide in boiled potato, hamburger, or fish, or in the broth left behind -- prompting this statement from Margareta Tornqvist, the study's lead author: "I would say that boiling at 100 degrees Celsius [212 degrees Fahrenheit] is the only safe cooking method."

Tornqvist and her colleagues shy away from recommending that people cook their food lightly to avoid acrylamide. Doing so might increase the risk of serious and potentially deadly food poisoning from germs that thorough cooking kills.

Ultimately, the scientists said, people who eat hot foods may take in acrylamide at well above the safe levels in water set by the World Health Organization.

The Snack Food Association, a U.S. snack industry group, has estimated that acrylamide may be present in up to 90 percent of the world's food supply.

Rick Jarman, vice president for food and environmental policy at the National Food Processsors Association, said he couldn't confirm that figure. However, Jarman said, "there is certainly a significant part of the food supply where acrylamide might be." But what that means, if anything, for human health isn't known, he said.

Jarman said the publication of the Swedish study, with its full methodology and the list of foods tested, will help researchers probing the issue further. "It should be very helpful as different companies and organizations try to determine what priorities and work is appropriate. But in terms of the implication for public health, at this stage that is still a looming question that is being pursued with all due diligence."

Jarman said his group's members haven't discussed any plans to start carrying acrylamide warnings on their labels.

That doesn't mean labeling hasn't become a hot issue, though.

After the Swedish team first reported their results, a California attorney demanded that McDonald's and Burger King put cancer warnings on their french fries in compliance with California's Proposition 65, a law that requires companies to list carcinogens, including acrylamide, in consumer products.

More recently, the American Council on Science and Health, a New York public health group, announced plans this month to sue Whole Foods Market for failing to comply with the California provision. The group accuses Whole Foods of neglecting to warn its customers about the acrylamide content of its whole wheat organic bread.

Jeff Stier, associate director of ACSH, said his organization doesn't believe acrylamide poses a health threat in bread or any other food product. Rather, ACSH is suing Whole Foods to point up the "absurdity" of Proposition 65. The law "doesn't take into account the number one rule of toxicology, which is that the dose makes the poison," Stier said.

ACSH also hopes to needle Whole Foods about what Stier called the "fraudulent" nature of its business plan: proclaiming the relative safety of organic foods over conventional products. "Even the most wholesome whole wheat bread has carcinogens," Stier said.

Whole Foods has hired a high-profile law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, to fight the lawsuit. The company has threatened to sue ACSH if it doesn't drop its claim, which its lawyers say has brought "adverse and unwarranted" publicity.

What To Do

For more on acrylamide in food, visit the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization or the World Health Organization.

SOURCES: Rick Jarman, vice president for food and environmental policy, National Food Processors Association, Washington, D.C.; Jeff Stier, associate director, American Council on Science and Health, New York; Aug. 14, 2002 Journal of Agricultural and Food Science
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