Why you don’t need to worry about eating brown toast

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.


  • Halo

    Given the many times that we are told things are good for us only to be told later that they are bad for us, nowadays, “news” like this is automatically ignored

    • Quentin Macaque

      No it isn’t

      • Malcolm Knott

        Oh yes it is!

        • Ahobz

          It’s that time of year.

  • Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabadoo

    t’would be racist not to eat blackened toast.

    • IainRMuir

      Excuse me, you racist b*****d, it’s “toast of colour”.

      Thank you.

      • fmed8

        Crumbs !

      • Dave

        Off white?

  • plainsdrifter

    The FSA; garbage in, garbage out.

  • Laura J

    Not to be racist either, I prefer my toast with an egg, ham, cheese on a leafy bed of spinach. I do ten to burn popcorn, though. LOL!

  • Malcolm Knott

    Nice little space-filler for journalists on a quiet news day.

  • mmac1968

    You say there is no risk but my grandfather ate roast potatoes & burnt toast and he was sadly taken from us aged 93.

    • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

      A clinical trial conducted on one proband by your unqualified self will not stand up to scrutiny demanded by our regulatory bodies, nice try though, I see the usual clowns liked it.

  • Augustus

    As cakes, pastries, biscuits, and all kinds of nuts and cereals contain high levels of acrylamide, can we now say goodbye to those endless Great British Bake off programmes?

  • Grumps

    Long before humans existed, let alone exploited fire, animals would eat roots which had been ‘roasted’ by bush fires. Early humans would have also discovered this, and found that their root veg was nicer if shoved in the embers of the camp fire.
    Over the 10,000 years of human development acrylamide was harmless. It was the invention of the electric toaster in 1893 which cause a surge in acrylomide-related cancer. The introduction of sliced bread in 1928 caused death on a biblical scale. Only the exploitation of the bimetallic strip in pop-up toasters has saved mankind from extinction.

    Next week’s headline: “Consuming croissants in combination with latte causes hysteria in media hacks”

    • BeetlesOfHaldane

      One feels for the French. It’s only a matter of time before they all start to keel over from blowtorching their creme brulees

  • AnnoyingWoodPigeon

    I’m not sure about scientists not knowing that acrylamides didn’t exist in food until 2002, but my husband is a food technologist and when I started going out with him in 1987 he like to tell me all the terrifying things he had been learning as part of his degree, one of which was never to eat burnt toast, because it gave you cancer. Having grown up with a rather unruly, calor gas, eye level grill I had spent the eighteen years up to that point only ever eating burnt toast, albeit thoroughly scraped down, and was quite surprised I wasn’t already dead.

  • MrUnclevanya

    I like my toast, butter and marmalade or jam. I only have my toast lightly toasted rather than dark brown or burnt.

    • waltcody

      Well then, you’ll certainly live forever

  • jeffersonian

    Doesn’t that photograph, with the ‘colours of toast’ feel racist somehow? 😉

  • King Kibbutz

    Anyway, this woman goes to the doctor and says “I’ve been taking steroids for a few months now and I’ve recently grown a penis”
    “Anabolic?” the doctor enquired
    “No, just a penis”

    • Halo

      excellent!

  • Malcolm Stevas

    The FSA ought to carry a health warning: Full Of Nuts. So it costs £130 million? I listened to a Radio 4 documentary the other day in which it was suggested that a UK doctor costs around a million pounds to train, and a nurse a hundred thousand: we could have lots of both, instead of the FSA.

  • Language. ‘Few would argue that … is NOT a legitimate…’. When you ‘argue’ something, you argue FOR it, unless it is explicitly stated that the argument is against. You need the ‘not’ in there to show the gainsaying. A native speaker should know this, surely?

    ‘Bored of’. Makes you sound 15. ‘Bored with’ is the more normal usage, isn’t it?

  • Icebow

    This issue is far from new.

  • JonathanBagley

    “Scientists didn’t even know that acrylamide was in food until 2002.” People were banging on about toast and roasted peanuts in the 80s.

  • Abdullah Desai

    If you google Netherlands cohort study involving 120,000 people,( yes 120,000)you will find some interesting facts, acrilamyde is more dangerous for women than men.

  • approveds

    The herb rosemary blocks acrylamide so sprinkle it on your bacon, sausages, processed meats while frying, or barbecuing. If you make your own bread put some rosemary in before baking. Put a sprig of rosemary in your bottle of cooking oil.

  • Maria

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