Originally published in October 2002 icon
Turn Down the Heat - How Cooking and acrylamides can Damage your Health
Acrylamides may sound like the synthetic fabric of a swinging sixties mini-skirt in an Austin Powers movie; however, recent discoveries reveal that they are chemically produced in cooking food to high temperatures and can be dangerous to your health, whether you already have cancer or are trying to prevent cancer.
A World Health Organisation conference held in Geneva in June 2003 with twenty of the worlds top food experts, announced that acrylamides are present in a huge range of staple foods which form a large part of our diet and that they are playing an alarming role in our lives.
This, said Dr Jorgen Schlundt, head of food safety at the WHO, is not just another food scare. "The experts were unanimous and clear that this is a major concern he said.
Apparently, experts in Britain are comparing the discovery of acrylamides action to the discovery of a link between smoking and cancer Some scientists are warning their own families not to eat foods cooked at high temperatures until more research has been carried out about the dangers, such is the concern about cancer risk.
Barbecues have long been known to be dangerous because of the tendency of flames and smoke to blacken and burn the meat and especially the fat. This produces high evels of carcinogenic nitrosamines, which have been particularly implicated in bowel cancer.
Fried foods are especially bad in terms of causing cancer. Fried meat has been directly linked to a higher risk of hormone-related cancers in women, and men who eat fried food regularly have three times the risk of contracting cancer.
Salted, cured, smoked and dried meats, where products like sodium nitrite are used as preserving agents, are also linked to increased rates of cancer. However, two research reports in the last eighteen months have proved even more worrying.
This Is Not Just Another Food Scare
Cooking any meat, beef, lamb, pork, fowl, and even fish, at high temperatures creates dangerous carcinogens called Heterocyclic amines (HCAs). In particular, cooking at temperatures over 200 C should be avoided and obviously this is important when roasting food. It is better to choose lower temperatures and cook for longer. Interestingly after cooking at high temperatures, chicken was found to have up to 15 times the amount of HCAs in beef cooked the same way! It would surprise many people that cooked chicken might be more carcinogenic than beef. And now cooking at high temperatures has been found to produce carcinogens in a much wider variety of food than just meat and fish.
Acrylamides are made from chemicals produced by the combustion of oil and hydrocarbons. when temperatures exceed 1200C (248%).
And, because they occur in common, everyday food, at the moment no one seems to know what to do about them.
However, the initial research shows they are highly carcinogenic and should be avoided at all costs, especially if you already have cancer. Acrylamides cause cellular DNA to mutate.
Acrylamides seem to be created naturally in baked or fried food when the temperature hits 120 C. They are not found in boiled or steamed food. At the moment no one is sure why or how they are created.
Acrvlamides Should Be Avoided At All Costs
Margareta Tornquist, an associate professor of environmental chemistry had been studying them and their usage in mineral processing and paper manufacturing. When she found them in foods earlier this year, all hell broke loose. Within four months the Swedish Food Agency had researched common processed foods and two months later the WHO was meeting in Geneva.
So little is known that the WHO conference came up with tour basic questions to be answered:
Why do acrylamides form during cooking?
How should we test for them?
How many foods contain them?
What is their potential impact on health?
WHOs head of food safety said, "The findings are very serious and must be addressed urgently" Professor Tornquist added, "there is no safe threshold".
Figures reported in the Sunday Telegraph from both the equivalent Swedish and British Food Standards Authorities showed (in micrograms per kilo) the worst offenders to be fries, chips and crisps and breakfast cereals. Over-frying greatly worsens the levels.
For example, in micrograms per Kilogram:
||Burger King Fries|
||Asda maize/potato sticks
||Kelloggs Special "K"
||All Bran Plus|
Acrylamides were not detected in flour, rice, raw or boiled potatoes and uncooked or boiled meat All the experts agree that much more research is needed before guidelines can be announced, but these new discoveries could change our eating habits for ever.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University believes acrylamide and other chemicals could show why cancer is so common in developed countries.
"Britain has a much better diet now than in the past but we and other western peoples increasingly die prematurely from diet-related disease such as cancer" he said. "The discovery of acrylamide could be the explanation we need, It means that these deaths could be caused by modern food processsing and cooking techniques".
So, while we are waiting for the results of new research and further announcements, if you want to make yourself as healthy as possible, turn down the heat and throw away the frying pan. You have been warned!