Is acrylamide in your toast really going to give you cancer?

Acrylamide has been in the news today, and this might be the understatement of the year. Front page newspaper headlines have been yelling everything from “Brits officially warned off chips” to “Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast could cause cancer” to the marginally more restrained “What is the real cancer risk from eating roast potatoes or toast?” All this has been accompanied by radio interviews with everyone from actual scientists to professional chefs to people keen to share their roast potato recipes. I expect there have been television interviews too – I haven’t had a chance to watch.

Hey, what could be more traditional, or more fun, than a food-health scare in January?

Acrylamide

Acrylamide

Never fear, the Chronicle Flask is here to sort out the science. Let’s get to the facts: what is acrylamide?

It’s actually a rather small molecule, and it falls into a group of substances which chemists call amides. Other well-known amides include paracetamol and penicillin, and nylon is a polyamide – that is, lots of amide molecules joined together. Amide linkages (the CO-NH bit) are a key feature of proteins, which means they appear in all kinds of naturally-occurring substances.

And this is where the food-acrylamide link comes in. Because acrylamide, or prop-2-enamide to give it its official name (the one only ever used by A-level chemistry students), forms when certain foods are cooked.

Acrylamide occurs naturally in fried, baked, and roasted starchy foods.

Acrylamide occurs naturally in fried, baked, and roasted starchy foods.

It begins with an amino acid called asparagine. If you’re wondering whether, with that name, it has anything to do with asparagus, you’d be on the right track. It was first isolated in the early 1800s from asparagus juice. It turns out to be very common: it’s found in dairy, meat, fish and shellfish, as well as potatoes, nuts, seeds and grains, amongst other things.

This is where the trouble begins. When asparagine is combined with sugars, particularly glucose, and heated, acrylamide is produced. The longer the food is heated for, the more acrylamide forms. This is a particular issue with anything wheat or potato-based thanks to the naturally-occurring sugars those foods also contain – hence all the histrionics over chips, roast potatoes and toast.

How dangerous is acrylamide? The International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified it as a Group 2A carcinogen, or a “probable” carcinogen. This means there’s “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans, but “sufficient evidence” of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. In other words (usually) scientists know the thing in question causes cancer in rats – who’ve generally been fed huge amounts under strictly controlled conditions – but there isn’t any clear evidence that the same link exists in humans. It’s generally considered unethical to lock humans in cages and force feed them acrylamide by the kilo, so it’s tricky to prove.

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-22-10-46At this point I will point out that alcoholic beverages are classified as Group 1 carcinogens, which means there is “sufficient evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans. Alcohol definitely causes cancer. If you’re genuinely concerned about your cancer risk, worry less about the roast potatoes in your Sunday roast and more about the glass of wine you’re drinking with them.

But back to acrylamide. In animals, it has been shown to cause tumours. It’s one of those substances which can be absorbed through the skin, and after exposure it spreads around the body, turning up in the blood, unexposed skin, the kidneys, the liver and so on. It’s also been shown to have neurotoxic effects in humans. BUT, the evidence that it causes cancer in humans under normal conditions isn’t conclusive. A meta-analysis published in 2014 concluded that “dietary acrylamide is not related to the risk of most common cancers. A modest association for kidney cancer, and for endometrial and ovarian cancers in never smokers only, cannot be excluded.” 

The dose makes the poison is an important principle in toxicology (image credit: Lindsay Labahn)

The dose makes the poison (image credit: Lindsay Labahn)

As I so often find myself saying in pieces like this: the dose makes the poison. The people who have suffered neurotoxic effects from acrylamide have been factory workers. In one case in the 1960s a patient was handling 10% solutions of the stuff, and “acknowledged that the acrylamide solution frequently had splashed on his unprotected hands, forearms and face.” The earliest symptom was contact dermatitis, followed by fatigue, weight loss and nerve damage.

Because of these very real risks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have set occupational exposure limits at 0.03 mg/m3 over an eight-hour workday, or 0.00003 g/m3.

Let’s contrast that to the amount of acrylamide found in cooked food. The reason all this fuss erupted today is that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published some work which estimated the amounts of acrylamide people are likely to be exposed to in their everyday diet.

The highest concentrations of acrylamide were found in snacks (potato crisps etc), and they were 360 μg/kg, or 0.00036 g/kg or, since even the most ardent crisp addict doesn’t usually consume their favoured snacks by the kilo, 0.000036 g/100g. (Remember that those occupational limits are based on continuous exposure over an eight-hour period.)

In other words, the amounts in even the most acrylamide-y of foodstuffs are really quite tiny, and the evidence that acrylamide causes cancer in humans is very limited anyway. There is some evidence that acrylamide accumulates in the body, though, so consuming these sorts of foods day in and day out over a lifetime could be a concern. It might be wise to think twice about eating burnt toast every day for breakfast.

Oh yes, and there’s quite a lot of acrylamide in cigarette smoke. But somehow I doubt that if you’re a dedicated smoker this particular piece of information is going to make much difference.

As the FSA say at the end of their report:

Your toast almost certainly isn't going to kill you.

Your toast almost certainly isn’t going to kill you.

“The dietary acrylamide exposure levels for all age classes are of possible concern for an increased lifetime risk of cancer. The results of the survey do not increase concern with respect to acrylamide in the UK diet but do reinforce FSA advice to consumers and our efforts to support the food industry in reducing acrylamide levels.”

This is not, I would suggest, QUITE the same as “Crunchy toast could give you cancer, FSA warns” but, I suppose, “FSA says risk hasn’t really changed” wouldn’t sell as many newspapers.

One last thing, there’s acrylamide in coffee – it forms when the beans are roasted. There’s more in instant coffee and, perhaps counterintuitively, in lighter-roasted beans. No one seems to have mentioned that today, possibly because having your coffee taken away in January is just too terrifying a prospect to even contemplate. And also perhaps because coffee seems to be associated with more health benefits than negatives. Coffee drinkers are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, suffer fewer cases of some cancers and fewer incidences of stroke. Whether the link is causal or not isn’t clear, but coffee drinking certainly doesn’t seem to be a particularly bad thing, which just goes to show that when it comes to diet, things are rarely clearcut.

Pass the crisps, someone.


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Is it possible to give up sugar completely?

It’s January, a month that’s traditionally marked by cold weather, large credit-card bills and, of course, an awful lot of highly questionable health stuff. Juicing, detox, supplements… it’s all good fun. Until someone gets hurt.

"Refined" sugar is almost entirely made up of a molecule called sucrose.

“Refined” sugar is almost entirely made up of a molecule called sucrose.

One substance that regularly gets a bashing is sugar, particularly so-called “refined” sugar. We’re told it’s toxic (it’s not), it’s more addictive than cocaine (it isn’t) and we should definitely all be trying to give it up.

Now, before I go any further with this, a word about healthy eating. I’m not a dietician. I don’t even claim to be a nutritionist (although I could, if I wanted). However, I think I’m on fairly safe ground if I say that we should all be striving for a healthy, balanced diet. That is, a diet containing a broad range of foods, plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy amounts of protein and some good fats.

A lot of people have diets that fall short of this ideal. Cutting back on foods which contain a lot of added sugar (cakes, chocolate, fizzy drinks, etc) and eating more vegetables and fruits is a good, and sensible, course of action.

The problem is that bit of common-sense advice doesn’t sell books or make an interesting TV show. It’s all a bit boring and, worse, it’s freely available. Compelling entertainment needs to be more exciting, more dramatic, more… extreme.

Which brings us to ITV’s Sugar Free Farm.

Page 81 of the current issue of Radio Times tells us that the celebrities face a "completely sugar-free regime".

Page 81 of the current issue of Radio Times tells us that the celebrities face a “completely sugar-free regime”.

This is actually the second series of this show, which first aired last year. According to the 7-13th January 2017 issue of the Radio Times:

“Seven celebrities who admit to terrible diets succumb to a few weeks of hard farm labour and a completely sugar-free regime (so no white carbs or fruit, let alone chocolate).”

Hm. Now, I’ve written about sugar more than once before, but to save clicking back and forth, here’s another quick summary:

Sugar is not one thing. The chemistry of sugars is quite complicated, but a human being trying to understand the food they eat probably needs to be aware of three main types, namely: glucose, fructose and sucrose.

180px-Glucose_chain_structure

glucose

Glucose is the sugar that all your cells need. Not having enough glucose in your bloodstream is called hypoglycaemia, and the result is seizure, coma and ultimately death. This isn’t a risk for healthy people without pre-existing conditions (like diabetes, for example) because evolution has put some clever safety-nets in place. First, our bodies are extremely efficient at carrying out the necessary chemistry to turn the molecules we eat into the molecules we need. Should that fail, our bodies are very good at storing nutrients to use in times when our diet doesn’t supply them. If you don’t eat glucose, your body will break down other foods to produce it, then it’ll start on your glycogen stores, move on to fat stores, and eventually start breaking down protein (i.e. the stuff in your muscles). This means that unless you stop eating completely for a fairly long period of time, you’ll survive.

Still, I think it’s important to emphasise the point: glucose is essential for life. The suggestion that this substance is “toxic” and thus should be completely eliminated from our diets is really, when you think about it, a bit odd.

Sucrose ("refined sugar") is a unit of glucose joined to a unit of fructose

Sucrose (“refined sugar”) is a unit of glucose joined to a unit of fructose

Ah but, I hear some people saying, no one is saying that glucose is toxic! They’re talking about refined sugar!

Fine. So what’s “refined” sugar? In simple terms, it’s pure sucrose. And sucrose is just a molecule made from a unit of glucose stuck to a unit of fructose. As I said, our bodies are really good at breaking up the molecules we eat into the molecules we need: our cells can’t use sucrose for energy, so all that happens is that it more or less instantly gets broken up into glucose and fructose.

Refined sugar is, basically, half glucose and half fructose, and it’s no more dangerous or “toxic” than either of those substances. And while I’m here, “natural” sugar options are little different: honey, for example, contains similar ratios of fructose and glucose.

200px-Skeletal_Structure_of_D-Fructose

Fructose

Allrighty then, what’s fructose? Fructose is another simple sugar, and it’s the one that plants produce. For that reason it’s sometimes called “fruit sugar”.

Our cells can’t use fructose for energy, either. But, same thing again: if you eat it your body will still use it. In this case, your liver does the heavy lifting; changing fructose into glucose and other substances, some of which are fats. On the one hand, this is a slower process so you don’t get the blood sugar spike with fructose that you get with glucose. On the other, some of the fructose you eat inevitably ends up being converted into fat.

As I mentioned, fructose is the sugar in plants. It’s found in almost all plant-based foods. For example, the USDA food composition database tells us that 100 g of carrots contains about 0.6 g of fructose. Perhaps surprisingly, broccoli contains slightly more: about 0.7 g per 100 g. Iceberg lettuce contains even more, at 1 g per 100 g, whereas green peas contain a mere 0.4 g.

Even a really small glass of fruit juice contains about 150 g.

Even a small serving of fruit juice usually contains at least 150 g.

None of this comes close to fruit. Apples contain about 6 g of fructose per 100 g, grapes 4 g and bananas 5 g. Dried fruit, as you’d expect, has considerably higher amounts by weight – because the water’s gone. Juices have similar amounts of fructose per unit of weight but, of course, you tend to drink a lot more than 100 g of juice at a time.

Now we understand why “Sugar Free Farm” has banned fruit. But this is why I have a problem with the title: you CAN’T eat an entirely “sugar-free” diet, unless all you eat is meat, fish, eggs and dairy products like cream and butter (but not milk, which contains lots of another sugar: lactose). This would be a far from healthy diet, seriously lacking in fibre as well as a host of vitamins and minerals (even “phase 1” or the “induction” period of the controversial Atkins diet isn’t quite this extreme).

The show hasn’t aired yet, and I admit I didn’t watch it last year, so I don’t know if that’s what they’re doing. But I seriously doubt it – it would be unethical and irresponsible. Plus, the words “white carbs” in the listings blurb make me suspicious. Why specify “white”? Are whole grains included? And what about pulses? Whole grain foods might be relatively low in fructose and glucose before you put them in your mouth, but as soon as saliva hits them the starch they contain is broken down into…. glucose. By the time you swallow that chewed-up food, it contains sugar.

In summary, Sugar Free Farm is almost certainly not sugar free. What they appear to have set up is a place where sugars are restricted and foods with added sugar are banned, and then mixed that with lots of outdoor activities (the celebrities are also expected to work on the farm).

Most people would lose weight following such a regime, because it’s likely that calories in are going to be lower than calories out. It’s a simple calorie deficit.

give-up-sugarWhat bothers me is that the show might go on to conclude that we should all “give up” sugar to lose weight – and some people might misinterpret that and end up embarking on an unbalanced, unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable diet – when in fact the results are simply due to calorie deficit.

There’s no need to try to give up sugar. Cut down, yes, but you can eat some sweet foods and still manage a calorie deficit. In fact you probably should: fruit in particular has lots of nutrients, including fibre. Besides, such a diet will probably be a lot more sustainable in the long term.

Unfortunately, “Eat Fewer Calories And Do Some Exercise Farm” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?


EDIT, 11th Jan 2017

Well, the first episode aired last night. No, the diet is not “zero sugar”. It’s very low in sugar, yes, but there are sugars. They used milk (contains lactose), ate wholemeal bread, brown rice and oats (all of which are broken down into glucose) and ate a variety of vegetables which, as I mentioned above, all contain small amounts of sugar. In fact, on their very first morning they eat a strange granola mixture made with sweet potato. The USDA food database tells me that sweet potato contains about 0.4 g of fructose, 0.5 g of glucose, 3.3 g of maltose AND 1.4 g of sucrose per 100 g. Yep. Sucrose. The stuff in “refined” sugar.

There was much talk of “detox” and “detoxing” from sugar. Sigh. That’s not a thing. Most worryingly of all, poor Peter Davison (he was “my” Doctor, you know) was carted off in an ambulance on the second day, suffering with dizzy spells. Everyone immediately started talking about how dreadful it was that “sugar” had caused this. There was only one, in passing, comment shown suggesting that perhaps the 65-year-old might have something else wrong with him. In fact, it turned out that he had labyrinthitis, an inner-ear condition. It’s usually viral. It’s not caused by “sugar withdrawal”. I’m sure they’ll make that clear in the next episode, right?

Speaking of which, the celebrities are on Sugar Free Farm for 15 days. A safe rate of weight loss is generally considered to be 0.5-1 kg (or 1-2 lb) a week. So they should lose about 2 kg, or 4 lb, on the outside. A snippet was shown at the end of the program in which Alison Hammond said she was “pleased” she’d lost 8 lbs. Whether that was after two weeks or a shorter period of time wasn’t clear, but either way, it’s a lot. It suggests that her diet is/was too low in calories, particularly considering all the extra physical activity.  Perhaps some of her so-called “sugar withdrawal” symptoms were actually simply due to the fact that she wasn’t consuming enough to keep up with her energy needs?

That aside, the diet they followed did seem to be fairly balanced, with plenty of vegetables and adequate healthy fats and protein. They had all been eating huge quantities of sugary foods beforehand, and cutting down is no bad thing. I’m just skeptical about exactly how much of the bad, and indeed the good, can be pinned on sugar.

Still, it made good telly I suppose.


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