Does Overcooking Starchy Foods Cause Cancer?

By Danielle Spano

What do burnt starchy foods and cancer have in common? That is the million-dollar question. There have been numerous debates and studies on whether eating burnt toast, potatoes and other starchy food can cause cancer. The United Kingdom Food Standards Agency launched a “Go for Gold” campaign outlining storage and preparation of food to minimize exposure to acrylamide, a chemical that is rumored to cause cancer. The United States Food and Drug Administration has been researching and assessing acrylamide since it was discovered in 2002. In 2008, the FDA posted guidelines and advice similar to what the FSA has begun campaigning in the UK. However, it is important to note that research has not provided evidence that acrylamide definitely increases the risk of cancer in humans.

What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a chemical formed from the sugars and asparagine (an amino acid) found in starchy foods during high-temperature cooking methods such as frying, roasting and baking. Additionally, the chemical is formed in coffee beans during the roasting process and is found in tobacco smoke, to the extent that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found twice the amount of acrylamide in smokers. The chemical is also used in certain industrial processes, adding to the plethora of ways it can enter the human body. It is no wonder the CDC reported in the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals that 99.9 percent of the US population has measurable acrylamide levels.

How can I reduce my intake?

The FSA and FDA’s tips for lowering dietary consumption of this chemical include following a healthy, balanced diet and limiting potato products like French fries and chips, coffee, and foods made with grains like cereal, cookies and toast. You should also store potatoes in a cool, dark place instead of in the refrigerator, which can increase acrylamide levels. The agencies recommend cooking starchy foods such as potatoes, bread and root vegetables only to a golden color, as brown areas of food tend to contain the highest amounts of acrylamide. Frying potatoes causes the highest formation of the chemical, with roasting causing less, and baking causing the lowest. These methods should be replaced with non-acrylamide-producing methods such as boiling or microwaving potatoes with the skin on when possible. The FDA also recommends soaking raw potato slices in water before frying or roasting to reduce acrylamide formation during cooking. Of course, you can also reduce your intake by not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke.

Do I really need to avoid it?

So, the burning question … “Is there a link between acrylamide and cancer?” Lab animal testing has shown an increased risk of several types of cancer from acrylamide consumption, however the doses were drastically higher than typical human exposure. Human studies have not found any increased risk, however those studies faced limitations of human error where participants may not remember what they ate and cannot as accurately account for the amount of acrylamide consumed as a lab test would. Because the data shows risk in animal studies, organizations such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Toxicology Program and the US Environmental Protection Agency have classified acrylamide as a probable human carcinogen, reasonably anticipated to be and likely to be carcinogenic to humans, respectively. University of Florida associate professor Volker Mai, Ph.D. has studied nutritional cancer epidemiology. “While the degree of risk associated with increased acrylamide intake is currently unclear, there is little doubt in my mind that some contribution to increased cancer risk is likely,” said Mai.