The Food and Drug Administration has put acrylamide in the news again. The chemical — produced when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures — appears in our diet in ridiculously small and harmless quantities. The latest and best research shows no connection between acrylamide in food and human cancer. But alas: Our nation’s food-panic bazaar, already crowded with non-issues like mad cow disease and genetically modified foods, apparently has room for one more unnecessary food fright.
We first learned in 2002 that acrylamide — which can cause cancer when ingested in huge doses — was present in harmless amounts in foods like French fries, potato chips, and breakfast cereals. While newspaper headlines cultivated public fear, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) angled for lawsuits, working with California trial lawyers in an attempt to sue restaurant chains and food makers. And based on the flimsiest of evidence and a few outright misrepresentations, CSPI later demanded that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) force companies to limit acrylamide in their products.
Additional research has put the whole acrylamide-in-food flap in its proper perspective. In 2003 the British Journal of Cancer published a study from epidemiologists at Harvard Medical School and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, who looked at over 43,000 human subjects and found no link at all between food-borne acrylamide and cancers of the bowel, bladder, or kidney. And this week JAMA (the journal of the American Medical Association) published follow-up research from the same team of scientists, who found that “the amount of acrylamide eaten in the diet did not pose an increased risk of breast cancer among the women in the study.”
Good news, right? Someone should tell the FDA. Earlier this month the agency announced plans to take a serious look at recommendations from the United Nations and World Health Organization, whose February joint “Expert Committee Report on Food Additives” called for continued “efforts to reduce acrylamide concentrations in foodstuffs.”
The UN/WHO recommendation is based entirely on the threat of breast cancer from acrylamide in food (the very thing the JAMA study recently rebutted). Their “Expert Committee” notes that the lowest daily acrylamide dose likely to cause “mammary tumors” is 300 micrograms per day for every kilogram of body weight. Do the math, and you find that for a 132-pound woman (about 60 kilograms) to have a higher breast-cancer risk from the acrylamide in her food, she would have to indulge in more than 460 Wendy’s “biggie” French-fry orders or 128 boxes of Cheerios every day for the rest of her life. And that’s according to CSPI’s own numbers. The group has claimed that cancer from food-borne acrylamide kills as many as 8,900 of us every year, but has yet to produce an American capable of downing 54,000 taco shells.
The UN and WHO “experts,” imagining a worst-case scenario, concede that the exposure of the “highest consumers” of acrylamide-rich foods — which, by the way, include spinach, beets, asparagus, and tomato sauce — only reaches one-seventy-fifth (1.3 percent) of the level needed to add any breast-cancer risk (see pp. 16-17). Yet they still call this safety margin “too low.”
As the Ides of March bring new developments about the acrylamides of starch, CSPI seems stuck in its own twilight zone. Apparently blind to the “science” in its own name, the group still wants government action, including warning labels. In January, CSPI chief food scold Michael Jacobson called even the FDA’s developing position “a real cop-out.” It says much about CSPI that it’s applying public pressure to protect us from imagined dangers in food. But then again, that’s what the group does best.