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You may have been buttering a warm slice of it this morning when headlines appeared saying overly browned toast is ‘a potential cancer risk’.

Add to this a similar warning in those same headlines for that quintessential Sunday side dish – the crispy roast potato – and Monday probably seemed a bit bleak.

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.

What’s acrylamide?

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.

But looking at different studies in people, there isn’t a clear and consistent link between acrylamide and increased risk of cancer.

Some have suggested exposure to acrylamide in food raises the risk of womb cancer, but the evidence is weak and inconsistent, so we can’t be sure if this link is real.

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

Comments

Gerard Fleming February 3, 2017

Yet again another well balanced and sensible explanation. Thank you for explaining “sensational headlines” that do nothing positive but just create panic. Cancer is frightening enough without the unnecessary media sensation.

A Rogers February 3, 2017

What a load rubbish, I have never heard such tripe in all my life, 68 years

Wayne Clarke February 3, 2017

I think It’s a load of bull I have brain tumour but instead of looking into helping people like myself they are scare mongering everyone else the next thing they will say is you will get cancer from breathing

Dorothy Wilson February 2, 2017

If eating toast and roast potatoes causes Cancer then I think millions of people would be dying every year and would have been for years and years

Nicholas Barker February 2, 2017

All of this is pure scaremongering. We have been eating burnt toast, over roasted potatoes etc etc etc for decades. Same thing with salt. one day it is bad for you the next it is good for you. Why do we have so much obesity which also results in diabetes over the past 30 years is because our diet and eating habits have changed beyond recognition. In the 1950’s early 60’s none of this was an issue. The food produced was healthier and had to be eaten within days of purchase as domestic freezers in the UK were virtually non-existent. Fast food outlets such as Macdonald’s, KFC’s were again non-existent in the UK and we did not have microwave ovens. Most foods today, unless you go to a farmers’ market, local butchers or buy from online butchers, are now full of preservatives for longer life and sit in the fridge may be for up to two weeks. The consumption of fast/convenient foods full of sugar/salt/E this and E that clearly do not help and maybe somewhere along the line contribute to the increase in cancer and other common illnesses but definitely result in obesity and diabetes. All these tests are done in extremis and don’t really have much bearing on normal eating habits. If you smoke 60 a day you are more likely to get cancer of the lungs/liver than someone who smokes 10 a day BUT each person’s physical constitution is different and whilst there are those who have contracted lung cancer from passive smoking there are those who have lived to over a hundred who smoked all their life. We are all different No one is going to eat roast potatoes three times a day every day nor eat large quantities of burnt toast either. Generally it is one or two slices and if you have an orange juice or liquid accompaniment this will dilute it to insignificance. Without being patronizing, a little sense and sensibility is required here – a balanced and varied diet is highly recommended and eating potato crisps, biscuits, cakes etc should be kept to a minimum. A bit of exercise would help to keep the body in trim but again not to excess. There are plenty of ways to keep fit without overdoing it. I am 70 and a great supporter of Cancer Research. Their comments above are measured and to the point. Most of us are adult enough to know what is good or bad for one. A little drink here does no harm, a fried egg there does no harm. These Government agencies, FSA, however, do harm and if one listened to them every time, as one person has commented, you might as well stay at home and DO NOTHING. Have a good life.

Alan February 2, 2017

Surely this is not news. I recall years ago that we were warned about overcooked products being carcinogenic. If I remember right, that time the message was to avoid burnt toast, i.e. dont scrape the black bits off of a slice that has been in the toaster too long. (other foods too)
In that case I thought they blamed the degradation of proteins to create carcinogens.

BoffinsRus February 2, 2017

Why the focus on (burnt) toast and crispy potatoes when acrylamide is present in most baked foods with sugar/starch content? Instant coffee also contains a “higher” amount of acrylamide. Keeping potatoes in the refrigerator (not mentioned) also allegedly increases levels of acrylamide. However, the clincher for me is that according to your report, industry workers who are exposed to double the amount of acrylamide, do not have a greater than normal incidence of cancer. But of course they are adults, so being aware of a perhaps a tiny risk to children, act and eat accordingly. Cutting out those starchy, highly processed treats (potato crisps etc.) would be a good start in any event.

Stuart Behn February 2, 2017

I think the whole article is rubbish and typical of scare tactics widely used by the media .
1) There is no evidence it has the same effect on humans.
2) There is no unambiguous numerical data . How much acrylamide is there in a slice of burnt toast?
3) What cancers are linked to acrylamide?
4) What are the cancer levels in 3 for people who do not eat burnt toast etc.etc.
5) I am sorry but the whole thing is scientifically illiterate rubbish
More data will prove or disprove the case

2)

Troy February 2, 2017

Despite spreading all these “concerns” by the Food Standards Agency on burnt toast, you can still purchase alcohol cheaper than water and milk in many cases – so if Government were sincere with their obligation, they would have done something to stop making alcohol available so cheap in the supermarket – oh wait a second, they generate lots of tax ! Besides their lobby is very influential !

Marguerite Wilkinson February 2, 2017

I’m 70 in July and I’ve had burnt toast for most of the time . I have never smoked and I have one small bourbon on a Saturday night watching Casualty ! I am overweight but it is honestly not down to what I eat . At my advanced age I have decided to have a vegetarian diet and I’ve bought Deliciously Ella cookery books and a couple of books on Italian vegetarian food , my favourite food . I love the Mediterranean diet and eat cherry tomatoes like sweets . I don’t eat biscuits or crisps but I do have a cake when my friend comes to do my hair once a month , it’s our little ritual! I have a lot of health problems but fibromyalgia is the one that ruins my life . I am housebound but very happy with my 3 cats , books , encaustic art and my soaps .

Estelle Ahmad February 2, 2017

I knew it was a load of nonsense. I am being treated for hers 2 EP screen detected breast cancer. I have no risk factors, good weight, exercise, non smoker moderate drinker no family history of any cancer at all etc. I am 68yearss old. Two of my close friends have been told they have no need to go for cancer screening after 65 yrs because they have no risk factors I presume by their GPs or Practice nurses now I call that irresponsible. The media also recently reported that I might be being over treated that wasn’t helpful for my moral. Keep up the good work debunking myths and miss information

Anonymous February 2, 2017

Well with the articles in newspapers stating that the world population is spinning out of control, these Governments, food agencies etc, knowing know that what goes into their foods are, and ARE carcinogenic. So they are the ones that are killing us. It doesn’t matter what you eat or drink, everything is bad….. but they aint gonna tell you that. They are just their to boost their profits. All we have to do is eat sensibly and keep ourselves healthy where we can.

Alan Parsons February 2, 2017

Thanks for keeping me informed as I’m often asked these sort of questions. Yesterday my sister’s handed over a cheque for £1,230,40p to cancer research from our fund raising activities so as you can imagine we meet a lot of people who are concerned.

Phil Cheatle February 2, 2017

In these days of “fake news”, “post truth” and sensationalist media headlines, articles like this are vital to help us keep hold of evidence-based reason.

Ben February 2, 2017

Food standard agency should warn people about hormones, antibiotics and hazardous preservatives! Better still stop them!

Tim Higgison February 2, 2017

At lat words of common sense and wisdom that put this topic into perspective, thank you.

Stephen Bateson February 2, 2017

Thank you for your common sense, non red top media headline, explanation

John Lichfield February 2, 2017

Scaremongering rubbish

ESTHER Johnson February 2, 2017

Thank for all this information really help well done keep on with a good work Thanks
Regards Esther Johnson

joe irvine February 1, 2017

i agree if you took on board everything that caused cancer you would never leave the house

Terry Bates February 1, 2017

I believe too much scaremongering has the opposite effect on most sane ordinary people than its original intention especially if it is not backed up by clinical facts as in the case of “brown toast”.

Ian January 29, 2017

Everywhere we turn we are increasing our cancer risk,the very air we breath is toxic,contaminated with car exhaust fumes.Look at the list of chemical ingredients on any shampoo,shower gel and beauty products which we apply and is absorbed through our skin.The things they put in processed foods.There are risks in our every day lives so a bit of burnt toast is neither here nor there.

Anonymous January 24, 2017

This is stupid alot of things can cause cancer we would be worry if we kept reading the news everyday life is worth living not worrying about stupid stuff like this