Yesterday the British Journal of Cancer released a study, the first of its kind, that looked for a real-life (not just theoretical) connection between cancer rates and acrylamide-rich foods. The study, a cooperation between Harvard University and a Swedish research institute, found:

“…consistently a lack of an[y] excess risk, or any convincing trend, of cancer of the bowel, bladder, or kidney in high consumers of 14 different food items with a high acrylamide content… [and] Unexpectedly, an inverse trend was found for large bowel cancer.”

Read that again: an inverse trend. That’s lab-coat talk for prevention. Could acrylamide actually prevent some types of cancer? The responsible answer is: we don’t know. What we do know for sure now, that we didn’t know for sure a week ago, is best summed up by Dr. Mucci in a British newswire story: “Overall,” he says, “this study provides preliminary evidence that there’s less to worry about than was thought.”

Last year, when Swedish scientists first announced that acrylamide — described in some scientific circles as a “probable” human carcinogen — was found in starchy foods that are cooked at high temperatures, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was quick to imagine a smoking gun in its jihad against French fries and potato chips, calling them “contaminated” foods.

But now CSPI’s worst-case rhetoric has been shot full of holes, in a study whose lead researcher, Harvard’s Dr. Lorelei Mucci, tells MSNBC: Target=_blank>“The amount of acrylamide people are taking in is probably not sufficient to increase the risk of cancer.” CSPI would definitely have egg on its face today, were it not for all that darned cholesterol.

Unlike the responsible scientists at the USDA, who noted that the initial acrylamide findings “were based on an analytical method that has yet to be validated,” CSPI jumped to the conclusion in 2002 that acrylamide already “causes several thousand deaths in the U.S. each year.” As recently as two weeks ago, CSPI’s chief killjoy Michael Jacobson warned radio listeners in Canada (without any proof) that the chemical kills “several hundred people a year, and tens of thousands of people over the lifetime of Canadians.”

Showing its true colors, CSPI attempted to jump-start a likely avalanche of litigation against restaurants and food producers based on the acrylamide-equals-cancer theory, colluding with California trial lawyers while keeping its fingerprints off of the legal papers. And CSPI has consistently demonized French fries while ignoring the copious evidence that certain vegetables (including spinach and beets) hold the greatest potential for acrylamide.

Of course, CSPI has hedged its bets by insisting all along that more research would be required before public health “experts” begin demanding changes in the way we eat. It’s ironic, then, that CSPI is the loudest voice pooh-poohing the only acrylamide science to come along in months.