The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2017

We’ve made it! Not only to 2018 (which was starting to look doubtful earlier in the year), but also to the Chronicle Flask’s 100th post. Which doesn’t seem that many, really, but since posts on here frequently run to 1500 words, that adds up to a rather more impressive-sounding 150,000 words or so. I mean, that’s like… half a Brandon Sanderson novel. Oh.

Anyway, it’s time for a yearly round-up. Here goes!

Last January I began with a post about acrylamide. We’d all been enjoying lots of lovely crispy food over Christmas; it was time to tell us about the terrible dangers of such reckless indulgence. The newspapers were covered with pictures of delicious-looking chips, toast and roast potatoes alongside scary headlines such as:  “Crunchy toast could give you cancer, FSA warns”. The truth was not quite so dramatic. Acrylamide does form when foods are cooked to crispiness, and it is potentially harmful, but the quantities which form in food are tiny, and very unlikely to cause you any serious harm unless you literally live on nothing but burnt toast. The FSA (Food Standards Agency) hadn’t significantly revised their guidelines, it turned out, but were in fact only suggesting that the food industry should be mindful of acrylamide levels in food and seek to reduce them as much as possible. That wouldn’t have made for quite such a good “your food is going to killllll you!” story though, I suppose.

In February the spikey topic of vaccination came up. Again. Vaccines are awesome. They protect us from deadly diseases. No, I don’t want to hear any nonsense about “Big Pharma“, and I definitely don’t want to hear how “natural immunity” is better. It’s not. At best, it might provide a similar level of protection (but not in every case), but it comes with having to suffer through a horrible, dangerous disease, whereas vaccination doesn’t. It ought to be a no-brainer. Just vaccinate your kids. And yourself.

It was Red Nose Day in the UK in March, which brought some chemistry jokes. Turns out all the best ones aren’t gone, after all. Did you hear about the PhD student who accidentally cooled herself to absolute zero? She’s 0K now.

April brought a post which ought to have been an April Fool’s joke, but wasn’t. Sceptics often point out that homeopathy is just sugar and water, but the trouble is, sometimes, it’s not. There’s virtually no regulation of homeopathy. As far as I’ve been able to establish, no one tests homeopathic products; no one checks the dilutions. Since a lot of the starting materials are dangerously toxic substances such as arsenic, belladona, lead and hemlock, this ought to worry people more than it does. There has been more than one accidental poisoning (perhaps most shockingly, one involving baby teething products). It really is time this stuff was banned, maybe 2018 will be the year.

In May I turned to something which was to become a bit of a theme for 2017: alkaline water. It’s not so much that it doesn’t do anything (although it really doesn’t), more the fact that someone is charging a premium for a product which you could literally make yourself for pennies. It’s only a matter of dissolving a pinch of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in some water.

June brought a selection of periodic tables because, well, why not? This is a chemistry blog, after all! And now we’ve finally filled up period seven they do have a rather elegant completness. 2019, by the way, has just been announced as the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, to coincide with IUPAC’s 100th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of Mendeelev’s discovery of periodicity (his presentation, The Dependence Between the Properties of of the Atomic Weights of the Elements, was made on 6th March 1869). Looks like 2019 will be an exciting year for chemists!

In July it was back to the nonsense of alkaline diets again, when Robert O. Young was finally sentenced to 3 years, 8 months in custody for conning vulnerable cancer patients into giving him large sums of money for ineffective and dangerous treatments. Good. Moving on.

August brought me back to a post that I’d actually started earlier in the year when I went to a March for Science event in April. It was all about slime, and August seemed like a good time to finally finish it, with the school holidays in full swing – what could be more fun on a rainy day at home than making slime? Slime was a bit of a 2017 craze, and there have been a few stories featuring children with severely irritated skin. But is this likely to be caused by borax? Not really. Turns out it’s actually very safe. Laundry detergents in general, not so much. In short, if you want to make slime the traditional way with PVA glue and borax, fill your boots. (Not really – your parents will be uninpressed.)

In September it was back to quackery: black salve. A nasty, corrosive concoction which is sold as a cancer cure. It won’t cure your cancer. It will burn a nasty great big hole in your skin. Do not mess with this stuff.

October carried on in a similar vein, literally. This time with a piece about naturopaths recommending hydrogen peroxide IVs as a treatment for lots of things, not least – you guessed it – cancer. Yes, hydrogen peroxide. The stuff you used to bleach hair. Intraveneously. Argh.

The puking pumpkin!

The end of the month featured a far better use for hydrogen peroxide, that of the puking pumpkin. Definitely one to roll out if, for any reason, you ever find yourself having to demonstrate catalysis.

November brought us, somewhat unseasonally, to tomatoes. Where is the best place to store them? Fridge or windowsill? Turns out the answer involves more chemistry than you might have imagined.

And then, finally, December. Looking for a last-minute Christmas gift? Why not buy a case of blk water? I mean, other than it’s an exorbitantly priced bottle of mysterious black stuff which doesn’t do any of the things it claims to do, and might actually get its colour from coal deposits, that is.

And that, dear friends and followers, is it for 2017! Happy New Year! Remember to be sceptical when the inevitable “deadly food” story appears in a few weeks….

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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?



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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