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Is Acrylamide The New Alar?
February 28, 2003
Maia Szalavitz
The media's cooking up a scare

New research that found the potential carcinogen acrylamide present in more foods than previously suspected - including breakfast cereals, coffee and toast - made the CBS Early Show, USA Today, the news wires, and many local TV news health segments. The new info came out of a meeting at the FDA between food scientists, including industry representatives from Proctor & Gamble and Frito Lay.

But another recent study which suggests that this substance is not a threat to humans was only mentioned in the last line of a Reuters story, and there only in a highly misleading way.

The  relevant study, published in the British Journal of Cancer in January, discovered that the consumption of foods previously found to contain high levels of acrylamide was not linked to colon, bladder or rectal cancers. In fact, the risk for bowel cancers was actually lower in people who ate the most acrylamide-containing foods.

Researchers believe that this is probably not due to the chemical, but due to many of the foods with high-levels of acrylamide also containing plenty of fiber. Since coffee has long been studied as a potential carcinogen and found innocent, and since the foods recently added to the acrylamide list have much lower levels than the fried and baked goods first associated with the chemical, surely this reassuring research deserves more than a mention?

Reuters cited it only to say, "One study published in January by scientists from Harvard and Sweden's Karolinska Institute found acrylamide levels were not high enough to increase people's risk of disease," which as you can see, does not tell the whole story.

Scientists did warn that this study doesn't take acrylamide entirely off the hook, since it could cause other kinds of cancer. But it does suggest that the risks are negligible for the kinds of cancer a food is most likely to cause (those in the digestive system).

Since researchers estimate that nearly 40% of calories consumed by Americans come from foods containing acrylamide, it is highly irresponsible not to mention that the only human research conducted so far finds no cancer risk.

Of course, since the substance is so highly prevalent in foodstuffs, and since this is only one study, more research is needed. In the meantime, take all media warnings about carcinogenic fries with a grain of salt



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