Chips and french-fries may not kill you after all

A recent study by Swedish and American cancer epidemiologists, led by Gunnar Steineck, professor in clinical cancer epidemiology (Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm), shows that moderate intake of acrylamide via foodstuffs like potato chips and french-fries gives no measurable increase of the incidence of cancer in humans, at least not in the colon and rectum, nor in the kidneys or in the urinary bladder. The results are published in the January 28, 2003 issue of British Journal of Cancer. Based on studies on animals that were given very high doses, acrylamide has hitherto been classed as "probably cancerogenic" by IARC, the expert organ for cancer questions at the World Health Organization. The IARC is presently reviewing the available data on acrylamide and cancer and expects to publish a report later in 2003.

Fries-and-chips scare

When the discovery of high acrylamide content in potato chips and other deep-fried foodstuffs was made public in April 2002, a formidable cancer-scare spread among consumers. Sales of potato-chips and fries plummeted and potato-farmers started looking for alternative crops.

Dying cows and shaking hardhats

The scare was further fanned by reminiscences of a couple of earlier environmental scandals involving acrylamide. Two prestigious tunnel projects in the late 1990's, one in southern Sweden (Hallandsåsen) and one at the new Oslo airport (Romeriksporten), met with groundwater leakage problems. In both cases the builders tried to seal their leaking tunnels by applying a acrylamide-based chemical sealant, Rhoca-Gil. Hundreds of tons of the sealant was used, a far greater quantity than the sealant was intended for. This resulted in such a huge acrylamide content in the leakage water (a whooping 26 000 micrograms per liter - the EU limit for acrylamide in drinking water is 0.25 micrograms per liter) that tunnel workers, particularly at Hallandsåsen, developed disturbing neurological problems and cattle drinking the leakage water died. Learning that their crispy snacks contained the same stuff that killed cows and gave construction workers shaking hands was enough for Scandinavian consumers to quit chip-munching in short order.

The potato-chip scare resulted in attempts by food manufacturers to develop new frying methods (mainly by lowering the frying temperature) in order to decrease the acrylamide content of their products. This has been rather successful. The acrylamide content in chips is now much lower than it was at the start, and by the end of 2002 the consumption of chips and fries has picked up again.

Not that new

The new study of cancerogenic effects of acrylamide on humans is actually not all that new. What is new is merely a specially designed statistical analysis. The background is as follows: In 1995 a Swedish group or researchers identified 987 patients from Stockholm with tumors in their intestines, bladders and kidneys. The patients, as well as a comparably-sized control group of randomly selected healthy individuals, were interviewed about their eating habits during five years before the patients developed their symptoms. The results, reported in 1999, said that it could not be proven that fried foods caused cancer in humans.

Back to their tables

The group has now gone back to their data and analyzed it with respect to acrylamide intake. No connection between incidence of cancer in the specified organs and acrylamide intake could be shown. On the other hand, the intake of acrylamide among the investigated individuals was rather low, 27 micrograms per day on the average. Only 2 % of the individuals investigated had an acrylamide intake of more than 60 micrograms per day. According to calculations, the risk of getting cancer should increase when the acrylamide intake is higher than 80 micrograms per day.

An occasional orgy is unlikely to kill you

What is the final verdict? The jury is still out - this is probably the safest conclusion that can be drawn at the present stage. But it also seems probable that you will not die just because you indulge in an occasional orgy involving potato chips.