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Chicken Over Chips

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I love potato chips. Doesn't everyone? But I have just thrown away half a bag of them, and I intend to buy no more. Why? Because the chemical acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, has been found in fried starchy foods, especially potato chips and French fries.

With all the cancer-from-food alarms the media thrust upon us almost every day, it's getting hard to avoid the impression that just living causes cancer. And maybe it does. Are eating and breathing perhaps the most dangerous things we can do?

I have never been one to perform the Chicken Little dance every time a new food hazard hits the headlines. Even if reliable, repeated research finds that a certain substance increases the risk of cancer or some other misfortune, a risk is only a risk -- a statistical probability, not a certainty. And remember: One factor in that probability is the amount of the substance consumed, and that is entirely within our control (you can eat just one potato chip).

Of course, it is only prudent to reduce our risks as much as possible. Life is a game of perilous poker, in which we must play the odds to win -- to stay alive. Or it is a minefield, if you prefer that metaphor. Either way, all risks are relative, to be weighed against each other. Compare, for example, the hazard of 40 potato chips a day versus 40 cigarettes a day. No contest.

The smoking statistics did persuade me to quit that habit. But why did I swear off potato chips, when the jury has barely begun to consider the hazards of acrylamide at potato-chip consumption levels? When no safe maximum level of acrylamide in human foods has been determined? Well, it's a lot easier to quit potato chips than to quit smoking, and there are many alternative salty crunchy-munchies that can accompany my cocktail without endangering my health -- at least not so far as has been discovered. So I switched to peanuts. Will their time come?

The Chemical

Acrylamide is a particularly interesting case. It is not a contaminant that has somehow found its way into our foods. It's nobody's "fault." Acrylamide is created by chemical reactions that take place during cooking. (Do I hear the raw food crowd shouting, "We told you so"?)

I had read occasional stories about acrylamide, but I became more conscious of the issue when I read "No Quick Fix for Acrylamide in Food," an article in the Aug. 14, 2006, issue of Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society. In it, author Bette Hileman reviews the current scientific and political status (there is always a political angle) of acrylamide in foods. Here are some facts I gleaned from that article, augmented by my own digging.

Acrylamide is a chemical used in industry that has long been known to damage the central nervous system, the immune system and the reproductive system, and probably to cause cancer. Only recently (in 2002) was it discovered in foods at hundreds of times the 0.5-parts-per-billion level considered safe in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Here's how it gets into our food.

When any food containing both starches and proteins is heated, the proteins' amino acids react with the starches' sugars (in the so-called Maillard reaction) to form dozens of highly flavorful compounds, many of which happen to be brown. And do we love our browned foods! Think French fries, potato chips, toast, pretzels and roasted coffee beans, to name a few. Unfortunately, among these dozens of compounds lurks acrylamide in various amounts, depending on cooking time and temperature (French fries and potato chips are cooked at the highest temperatures, making for high acrylamide levels), moisture content and the amounts of the sugar glucose and the amino acid asparagine in the food.

A survey of the acrylamide levels in hundreds of food products can be found at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/acrydata.html#u1004 .

The Politics

Food-safety authorities in Europe, most notably in Germany, have instituted regulations to reduce the amounts of acrylamide in foods. The FDA has taken no action and has been strongly criticized for dragging its feet.

A "National Uniformity for Food Act" (H.R. 4167) recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, with 94 percent of Republicans supporting it and 64 percent of Democrats opposing. It has gone to the Senate, where it was the subject of a hearing on July 27.

The act would prohibit states or local governments from enacting any food-safety law that differs in any way from federal law, including setting more stringent limits on toxic substances (though states could appeal to the FDA to retain their standards). If the bill (S. 3128) passes the Senate, the FDA would be the sole arbiter of permissible toxin levels in foods, overriding hundreds of existing state and local food safety laws. Supporters of the bill are the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other large food industry groups. Consumers Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the attorneys general of 39 states oppose it, and so do I.

If you need help in deciding what to tell your senator about the proposal, you can find a summary of the arguments for and against the bill at http://www.starchefs.com/features/food_debates/national_uniformity/index.shtml .

Robert L. Wolke (http://www.robertwolke.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Cook 2, the Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science" (W.W. Norton, 2005). He can be reached atwolke@pitt.edu.

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