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Cancer-Causing Chemical Varies in Foods

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Dec. 4, 2002 -- Popular brands of potato chips and french fries contain highly variable levels of a possible cancer-causing substance, says a new FDA report.

FDA researchers tested numerous brands of commercially available packaged and fast foods for the presence of acrylamide, a chemical known to cause cancer in animals at high doses, according to the FDA. However, it's not known whether acrylamide causes cancer in humans or animals at the very low levels in foods.

Acrylamide may be formed when foods high in carbohydrates -- sugars and starches -- are fried or baked. Earlier this year, Swedish scientists reported that acrylamide forms when a naturally occurring amino acid in foods is heated with certain sugars such as glucose.

What the FDA researchers found was that the amount of acrylamide seemed to vary a great deal from one bag of chips to the next -- even among the same brand. For example, among bags of Lay's potato chips, there was a more than two-fold difference in acrylamide levels between the bags with the highest and lowest levels. And Popeye's french fries had an even wider variation -- with a more than three-fold difference between fries from different restaurants.

"The FDA continues to find a wide variety of acrylamide levels in foods," reads an FDA statement released today. "The data show that some foods have very little or no acrylamide present, while test results from other foods continue to confirm the presence of acrylamide.

"Because of the substantial variability ... one cannot and should not conclude that acrylamide levels in any given brand are higher than those of another brand," the FDA statement says.

Allan Novetsky, MD, chief of medical oncology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, has strong opinions on the matter.

Food processing warrants further investigation, he tells WebMD. "We've known that charcoal grilling, that cured meat, produces carcinogens [cancer-causing substances]. I advise patients to reduce the amount of broiling or barbequeing they do, to eat less cured meat." Chemical fertilizers and vinyl chloride packaging are also sources of food-related carcinogens, he adds.

He advises patients that a well-balanced diet -- one that is high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables and low in french fries and potato chips -- reduces overall risk of developing cancer.

One industry source is not as concerned about acrylamide.

"There is no credible evidence that acrylamide in food poses a human cancer risk," writes Joseph D. Rosen, PhD, author of a special report from the American Council on Science and Health. The FDA's claim is based on high-dose studies in laboratory animals, says the report. "There is no evidence whatsoever that humans ... increase their risk of any type of cancer," says Elizabeth M. Whelan, ACSH president.

Novetsky also advises patients to be "very proactive in pushing the federal government to look at the safety of food processing -- even before it gets to the table or barbeque grills," he tells WebMD. "It's important that the public raise a cry to enable our government to move ahead with better studies of this issue. The food industry has its own well-supported lobbying group, so the grass roots public needs to be heard. We have to press harder for these kinds of studies."

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