You may have been buttering a warm slice of it this morning when headlines appeared saying overly browned toast is ‘a potential cancer risk’.
The news came following the launch of a new campaign from the UK Food Standards Agency, which aims to encourage people to reduce the amount of a chemical – called acrylamide – in food cooked at home.
And while it’s a useful reminder about the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet, there’s a little more to this story than headlines simply saying burnt toast causes cancer.
Here’s what you need to know.
Acrylamide is a chemical that is created naturally when many foods, particularly starchy foods, are cooked at high temperatures for long periods (e.g. baking, frying, toasting and roasting).
Because of this, it’s commonly found in foods such as biscuits, cake, bread, and fried potato products (like crisps and chips).
And it’s this acrylamide in food that is the focus of today’s headlines.
What’s the concern?
Studies in animals have shown that acrylamide has the potential to damage the DNA inside cells. And because of this it has been linked to cancer.
On top of this, acrylamide doesn’t seem to cause higher rates of cancer in food industry workers, who are exposed to twice as much acrylamide as people might be at home.
So why has the UK Food Standards Agency launched its campaign?
While a link between acrylamide and cancer hasn’t been established by studies in people, scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have looked at how much acrylamide people are exposed to through their diet.
They do this by comparing the amount of acrylamide linked to a small increase in risk of cancer in animals to the amount people are exposed to.
This is a way of working out whether there could be a risk to human health, even though the size of any increased risk in people isn’t certain. The calculations then give a number that can be used to compare different chemicals.
While it’s not perfect, it can tell us how much breathing space there is between the amount of a substance people are generally exposed to, and the amount that could pose a risk to their health.
Somewhat confusingly, a large number indicates a low risk, whereas a small number indicates a higher risk. And EFSA states that a value of 10,000 or higher is of low concern for public health.
For acrylamide and cancer, EFSA estimates this as ranging from 425 for the average adult down to 50 for high consuming toddlers. Since these values are well below that 10,000 benchmark, EFSA says they indicate a concern.
For this reason, along with the evidence from animal studies, the UK Food Standards Agency want to raise awareness about acrylamide in food and the steps you can take to reduce your exposure.
Hence their campaign.
Should I be worried?
The most important thing to say following today’s news is not to panic if you had burnt toast this morning or crispy potatoes with your Sunday roast.
Importantly, this campaign gives yet another good reason to consider eating a healthy, balanced diet for overall good health and weight management. And the key here is balance – there’s no need to cut these foods out entirely, just cut down if you eat them a lot.
Some of the largest sources of acrylamide – crisps, chips, cakes and biscuits – are foods that you should try and avoid eating every day anyway, as they are high in calories and low in beneficial nutrients and fibre. So a win, win.
But when it comes to preventing cancer there are still bigger risk factors to fry.
Smoking, obesity and alcohol still trump acrylamide
As with anything to do with preventing cancer there’s a bigger picture to be aware of here. And the risks linked to smoking, obesity and alcohol have a much bigger impact on cancer cases in the UK than acrylamide.
Not smoking and keeping a healthy weight are still the best things you can do to reduce the risk of cancer, and today’s headlines don’t change this.
Emma Shields is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK