Snack Food-Cancer Risk Link Downplayed
More Research Needed on Starchy-Snack Scare
June 28, 2002 -- Your snacking habit is safe for now. A group of international health experts says there is not enough evidence to prove that a substance found in many carbohydrate-rich foods such as potato chips, french fries, cookies, and cereals can cause cancer in humans.
But the group says recent findings about high levels of acrylamide -- a substance known to cause cancer in animals -- in common snack foods is a "major concern," and more research is needed.
"After reviewing all the available data, we have concluded that the new findings constitute a serious problem," said Dieter Arnold, director of Germany's Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers, in a statement. "But our current limited knowledge does not allow us to answer all the questions which have been asked by consumers, regulators and other interested parties."
Arnold led the three-day meeting on the issue of acrylamide in food, which was hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
Two months ago, a group of Swedish researchers announced that laboratory tests showed that baking or frying starchy foods such as potatoes, breads, and cereals at high temperatures created levels of acrylamide in these foods that are higher than those allowed by the WHO.
For example, they found a bag of potato chips may contain up to 500 times more of the substance than allowed in drinking water by the WHO. Those safety recommendations permit one microgram (one-millionth of a gram) of acrylamide per liter of drinking water.
But the expert panel says that although acrylamide is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals, no studies of the relationship between acrylamide and cancer in humans have been done. And the theoretical models used to predict whether humans may also develop cancer from average intake levels of the substance are not reliable enough to draw firm conclusions about risk.
The group says research has shown acrylamide's potency is similar to that found in other known cancer-causing substances such as certain types of hydrocarbons formed in meats when grilled or fried.
But although the average daily intake of acrylamide for most people is likely to be higher (around 70 micrograms a day from all food sources), experts say the range would still be lower than that shown to cause nerve damage in laboratory animals.
"The claim that acrylamide, found in common foods such as potatoes and bread, after cooking, poses a human cancer risk is based exclusively on high dose studies in laboratory animals," said Elizabeth Whelan, MD, president of the American Council on Science and Health, in a statement released after the Swedish study was announced in April. "There is no evidence whatever that humans who eat the observed levels of acrylamide are exposed to any risk of any cancer."