Ever since I woke up to the shocking Brexit result, I am just a little more guarded every time I listen to the news on tv. Lately, I have also adopted a delay technique that works as a pre-warn system when something else has happened unexpectedly. By simply reading the faces of my children as they eat breakfast and listen to the news before I enter the kitchen, I am able to predict with a high degree of accuracy if what I am about to tune into is bad. For example, finding my children gaping at the tv in silence, mid-bite, on the morning after the US general election gave me the necessary seconds needed to grab onto something (or someone). However, the system is not perfect and at times their quizzical looks and rumpled foreheads mean that I have to face the news blindsided.
A couple of weeks ago, for instance, just when I thought that I had heard enough ‘fake news’ stories and actual fake news stories, I found myself listening to the news that the latest cancer risk is now burnt toast. The Food Standards Agency’s latest campaign ‘Go for Gold’ was behind the story by highlighting the possible cancer risk of acrylamide, a chemical formed when starchy foods are subjected to a high temperature. Every news channel appeared to be covering the launch of the campaign, accompanied by a display of every shade of toast as if to demonstrate when toast = cancer. You could almost sense a certain smugness in the news presenters who said they preferred theirs toasted barely beige. While other presenters seemed silently preoccupied and even defensive about their habit of toasting to a mahogany hue.
The news seemed quite improbable amid the abundance of news fakery, especially as it only referred to acrylamide as being a ‘possible risk’. If burnt toast was really so lethal, why haven’t we experienced an epidemic of death by crust? Will burnt toast be a weapon of choice in a future episode of Midsummer Murders? What about the burnt crumbs? Do I finally have a valid excuse not to clean out the toaster? And what about the risk of cancer through second-hand burnt toast aroma? Is my husband trying to kill me???
Whilst looking further into the Food Standards Agency’s campaign, ‘Go for Gold’, I discovered even worse news; this cancer risk is not only about toast. Acrylamide is actually present in most foods and it is impossible to completely avoid it. In fact, the majority of foods containing high levels make up a large part of many people’s diets. For example, starchy foods such as root vegetables, potatoes, potato products, for example, crisps, breakfast cereals, biscuits and bread all contain high levels of acrylamide. This is because acrylamide is produced when these foods are cooked at >120˚C, such as when they are fried, baked, toasted or roasted.
The World Health Organization says that acrylamide is ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans based on studies of rodents who were exposed to high levels and then developed cancer. Therefore, the recommendation is to reduce prolonged exposure to acrylamide, just in case it might cause cancer somewhere down the road. The ‘Go for Gold’ campaign says we can do this by cooking starchy foods less and aiming for a golden yellow colour. Better yet, stay safer and steam or boil, where possible. The campaign also advises to stop storing raw potatoes in refrigerators if they are going to be fried, roasted or baked later as it increases the level of acrylamide produced.
Unsurprisingly, the response to the campaign has hardly been successful and there are many who simply refuse to believe, on principle, that they must change their diets. After all, only the ‘worried well’ generally follow dietary advice for an unproven risk of cancer. And since the range of foods implicated in the advice is so vast, it does not seem realistic to expect many people to reduce their consumption or drastically change the way they have always cooked. The campaign has also caused much confusion over how to follow the advice on a practical level. For example, how are we now supposed to deal with frozen oven chips when they are doubly dangerous for their storage and preparation methods? Are there any biscuits left that are safe to eat? Is caramelising sweet potatoes just another nail in the coffin?
It is likely that the vast majority of the population will ignore the campaign with all the other difficult guidelines such as smoke and drink less, eat a healthy, balanced diet with more veg and less meat and exercise more. In the end, whether the morning news alarms us to burnt toast risks or bizarre political events what we do about it comes down to what we think is ‘fake’ and whether the truth is convenient. Because like fake news stories, people have a habit of accepting that something is true, however outlandish it sounds, if it more readily fits into their lives. Therefore, if there is a real risk of cancer, the Food Standards Agency would do better to concentrate on the food industry and look to methods of manufacturing that will reduce acrylamide levels in foods. This way, the risk of cancer due to acrylamide levels can be reduced at a population level ‘just in case’ regardless of whether or not the risk is believed. However, I imagine that it is also an inconvenient truth that the food industry has a long history of being resilient to any pressure that threatens their profits.
In the meantime, I don’t think that there is any reason to panic about your acrylamide levels and we have not drastically changed the way we cook in my family. Although I live in hope that the campaign will help to encourage my family to stop burning toast because I cannot bear the lingering smell. If anything has changed, we are now eating less potatoes because we have forgotten where they are stored…
In the meantime, I found some sweet potatoes which I used to make my favourite Sweet potato veggie burgers with tahini sauce. If I ever find the potatoes, I may even make my own oven chips!