A worldwide alert was issued last night after scientists announced that much of the food we eat contains a chemical known to cause cancer, damage the nervous system and affect fertility.
The Food Standards Agency said that its scientists had confirmed recent Swedish findings that “significant levels” of acrylamide occurs in fried, baked and processed foods ranging from biscuits, bread and crisps to chips and possibly meat. The finding has the potential to change the way certain types of food are viewed, in much the same way that studies in the 1960s changed perception of the health risks of smoking.
Acrylamide causes gene mutations leading to a range of cancers in rats, including breast cancer, uterine cancer and tumours in the adrenal glands and the internal lining of the scrotum.
Among the products tested in the British study – some of which had levels of acrylamide 1,280 times higher than international safety limits – were chipped and fried supermarket potatoes, Walkers crisps, Ryvita crackers, Kellogg’s Rice Crispies and Pringles crisps.
The results have so alarmed health experts that they have called international meetings to discuss what should be done.
The British and Swedish findings were presented yesterday to the Scientific Committee on Food which advises the European Commission on food safety. World health Organisation experts will discuss the research at a special meeting in Geneva next month. It is expected to recommend further studies.
According to the findings, acrylamide forms naturally in food when it is fried or baked. The scientists believe it also occurs in roasted, grilled and barbecued food.
As a genotoxic carcinogen, acrylamide is classified as a “probable” cancer-causing chemical with no safe dose.Diane Benford, a toxicologist at the FSA, said: “We cannot define a safe level. We have to assume that at any level of exposure there may be some risk, albeit very small.”
With 30 to 40 per cent of cancers caused by diet, Dr Benford said that it was too early to say whether acrylamide was one of the major causes of cancer.
Steve Wearne, head of contaminants at the FSA, said: “It’s about any food that’s cooked this way. It appears that any of these cooking processes in food production can lead to acrylamide forming. It’s not clear what the factors are that lead to acrylamide formation; it may be due to the type of cooking, temperature, or chemical composition of the food, or other factors.”
However, the scientists have established that frying chips until they are overcooked generates more acrylamide than cooking them according to instructions on the packet.
European rules on the amount of acrylamide allowed in food packaging allow no more than 10 parts per billion. Ross frying chips were found to contain 200 ppb as sold – 20 times the permitted level – and 3,500 ppb when cooked. However, when overcooked, they contained 12,800 ppb – 1,280 times the permitted level. Sainsbury’s baking potatoes contained less than the permitted 10 ppb when raw or boiled, but 310 ppb when chipped and fried. Walker’s ready-salted crisps contained 1,270 ppb; Dark Wholemeal Rye Ryvita contained up to 4,000 ppb; Kellogg’s Rice Crispies contained 110 ppb and Pringles original crisps contained 1,480 ppb. The Consumers’ Association described the findings as a “worrying development”.
Sue Davies, principal policy adviser, said: “More research into the implications of this study need to be carried out.” The British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation issued a joint statement saying they shared the FSA’s concern and welcomed its advice. The statement added: “How acrylamide is produced during processing and cooking is not known. Manufacturers and retailers are committed to working with the agency – and internationally – to establish the significance of these findings for public health and to reduce consumers’ exposure.”