Updated on 4/4/2005
You're referring to a report from the Swedish National Food Administration (NFA) on findings that baked or fried starchy foods - such as French fries, potato chips, bread and cookies - contain a chemical called acrylamide that is carcinogenic in rats. The substance occurs in starchy foods that are fried or baked at high temperatures but isn't present when the same foods are cooked in other ways. This suggests that the method of preparation, not the starches themselves, create the toxin.
There has been a surprising amount of media attention to this report given the facts that (1) acrylamide isn't a proven human carcinogen and (2) the amount found in your daily consumption of food is 700 times less than levels needed to cause cancer in rats.
I don't think there's any great cause for alarm about these findings, for two reasons: One, if you're on a healthy diet, you're probably not eating a significant amount of fried foods and processed baked goods. Secondly, you have to maintain perspective about foods that cause cancer in rats. Most aren't human carcinogens. For example, substances in such foods as apples, apricots, bananas, broccoli, cabbage, cherries, and chili peppers (to name a few) have been shown to cause cancer in rodents. As you undoubtedly know, fruits and vegetables do not raise the risk of cancer among humans - they reduce it.
Acrylamide can cause damage to DNA and, for that reason, the Swedish findings are noteworthy. But it is also important to remember that despite its report, the NFA didn't propose any changes in its dietary recommendations to the Swedish public.
If you're following a healthy diet, there's not much reason to worry about the acrylamide in an occasional indulgence in French fries, cookies and the other foods mentioned by the NFA. If you eat those foods regularly, you should be more concerned about all the unhealthy fat and refined starch in them, which are greater threats to health than the small amounts of acrylamide they may contain.
Andrew Weil, M.D.