The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched a campaign to warn Britons of the dangers of toasting and roasting their carbohydrates, based on the assumption that acrylamide in food causes cancer. This has led to mildly surreal headlines such as ‘Roast potatoes and toast that’s a bit too brown may cause cancer, say authorities’ (The Guardian). In fact, the FSA has gone out on a limb by speculating about a risk that may not exist.
Like everything in the universe, acrylamide can be harmful if you have too much of it. How much is too much? We don’t really know. Evidence that acrylamide causes cancer comes from laboratory studies on mice, but the doses given to rodents are ‘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.
By contrast, studies of acrylamide when consumed by humans are ‘somewhat reassuring’ and there are ‘currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake’. The European Food Safety Authority says that the evidence that acrylamide in food causes cancer in humans is ‘limited and inconsistent’.
Scientists didn’t even know that acrylamide was in food until 2002, so specific research into this chemical in the diet is still at an early stage, but nutritional epidemiologists have been frantically searching for links between everyday food products and cancer for decades without stumbling across a risk from products that are high in acrylamide, such as coffee. This fact, along with the dozens of studies that have looked specifically at acrylamide and human health, suggests that no such link may exist.
There are many examples of health scares being created after vast quantities of a chemical were given to cancer-prone rodents. The artificial sweetener saccharin, for example, was banned in Canada and given a health warning in the US after it was shown to cause bladder cancer in rats. It took years before the authorities accepted that it did not have the same effect on humans.
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.
But going beyond its remit is what the FSA does. The quango was set up in 2000 under Tony Blair in response to a spate of food poisonings in restaurants. Few would argue that ensuring basic standards of hygiene and safety in the food supply is a legitimate public health goal, but the FSA soon got bored of that and became part of the nanny state. Amongst its dubious achievements are telling football fans to substitute sparkling water and grapes for beer and crisps when watching the World Cup, defining cheese as ‘junk food’ and lobbying for bans on advertising.
It is a classic example of bureaucratic expansion. As its mission crept, its budget grew, and although it has been trimmed somewhat in the era of so-called austerity its annual income exceeds £130 million and it apparently still has time to tell people not to fluff their roast potatoes.
I suspect that most people will treat the FSA’s warnings with weary cynicism. How many of us are really going to start roasting potatoes for hours at 120 degrees Celsius, or give up crinkle-cut crisps in favour of flat crisps, as the FSA advises? It is more likely that we will dismiss the acrylamide warning as the latest in a long line of attempts to convince us that everything we eat either causes or prevents cancer.
Ultimately, the endless procession of cancer scares has the effect of degrading the currency of health advice. Either we become hypochondriacs, afraid of everything, or we assume that scientists cannot agree on anything and dismiss all health advice as scaremongering. Neither outcome is desirable.