TCS Daily

Phantom Acrylamide Menace

By John Luik - September 29, 2005 12:00 AM

"This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer."

-- Proposed California Acrylamide Warning

Ever since California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced that he was filing suit against McDonald's, Burger King, Frito-Lay and six other food companies to force them to put warnings about acrylamide on their French fries and potato chips, there has been a rash of stories about the supposed dangers of a chemical that most Americans can't even pronounce. For example, in a front page story in the Times business section (September 21, 2005), Melanie Warner opined that:

        "Americans may have plenty of reasons to fear French fries. While they are 
        one of the country's favorite foods, they are soaked with trans fats, loaded 
        with sodium and full of simple carbs, the bad kind. And, it turns out, they 
        are also full of a chemical called acrylamide, which is known to cause cancer 
        in laboratory rats and mice."

I say opined since Warner apparently either doesn't know or care to mention that causing cancer in lab rats is something very different from causing cancer in humans. She also seems to think that lab data on acrylamide is all we have on which to make a risk assessment.

"The regulation of chemicals in food, has", she writes, "relied upon animal study extrapolation to determine risks to humans. For obvious ethical reasons, the testing of potential carcinogens is not done directly on humans; animals... have served as proxies." Of course nobody is talking about testing potential carcinogens on people, but there is abundant scientific evidence about the effects of suspected carcinogens on human populations from epidemiological studies. And the epidemiological studies on acrylamide exposure, about which Warner says nothing, show that it is not a human carcinogen.

The real source of the recent flap over acrylamide predates Lockyer's headline-grabbing suit. It goes back to April 2002 when scientists at Sweden's National Food Administration reported that acrylamide, which had been used for fifty years in water filtration and paper and dye manufacturing, was to be found in a variety of foods, not as an additive, but as a result of the high temperature reaction between sugars and the amino acid asparagine. The longer foods are cooked and the higher the temperature, as in grilling, baking, broiling, and frying, but not boiling, the greater the amount of acrylamide that is created.

Acrylamide forms in a wide variety of foods, including bread, pastries and cakes, cookies, breakfast cereals, pretzels and chips, muffins and toast, roasted peanuts, black olives, prunes, spinach, beets, asparagus, tomato sauce, coffee, beef, alfalfa sprouts, eggs and pizza. What's interesting, given how widely distributed acrylamide is, is how few foods have been targeted by food cop Lockyer for labeling --- just fries and chips. Of course that might be just an honest oversight rather than a move to slap the big C -- Cancer -- warning on two of America's favorite foods. A Cancer warning on prunes, beets and spinach doesn't quite fit the right agenda.

From the moment the Swedish scientists reported their findings, health and food activists have been charging that acrylamide is a widespread and potent new source of human cancer. The World Health Organization, ever ready to jump on another reason to target "junk foods", quickly got into the act urging governments to pressure the food industry to "lower significantly" the acrylamide content in foods on the basis that the acrylamide was a "probable human carcinogen". And the FDA quickly put together a research program on acrylamide along with an Action Plan to guide its activities.

But by far the most significant source of the current acrylamide scare is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which since the Swedish report on the existence of acrylamide has been at the center of a protracted campaign of misinformation culminating in Lockyer's ambitions to have acrylamide labeled a human carcinogen. For example, days after the first reports from Sweden about acrylamide in food, CSPI issued a press release from its Executive Director Michael Jacobson which claimed that "The amounts of acrylamide found in potato chips, [F]rench fries, and other carbohydrate-rich foods [read: foods that CSPI believes Americans should not eat] would be expected to significantly increase the risk of cancer in humans."

Latter the same year, writing in CPSI's Nutrition Action HealthLetter (September 2002) Jacobson noted that while acrylamide had not been found to cause cancer in humans, "most cancer experts presume that it does." By January of the following year, 2003, Jacobson was no longer presuming that acrylamide was a killer: he knew. On a Canadian radio program he said, without providing any evidence, that acrylamide was responsible for "tens of thousands of cancers" and killed "several hundred people a year". In the US, acrylamide, according to the CSPI killed "several thousand" people per year.

It all sounds terribly scary until you stop and look at the scientific evidence supporting the acrylamide menace. And then you suddenly realize that there are not sound scientific reasons for believing that acrylamide is responsible for even one death, let alone thousands of deaths a year in the United States.

NEXT: Is Acrylamide Really a Cancer Risk?

John Luik is writing a book about health policy.


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