Carcinogens Lurk in Crispy Foods

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The fuss about acrylamide continues. This, you may recall, is a carcinogen formed when foods containing sugars and the amino acid asparagine are cooked at high temperatures. Acrylamide is formed during the Maillard reaction, which causes baked, fried, and toasted foods to turn attractively brown and taste yummy.

Obviously, acrylamide has been around in foods for a long time. But now that everyone knows how bad it is, what should be done about it?

Foods low in sugars and high in antioxidants have lower levels of acrylamide.

A new toxicology study provides estimates for an upper level of intake that can be considered safe: 2.6 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. This would be equivalent to 182 micrograms for a 70 kg human to avoid cancer. Much higher levels are required to cause neurological problems: 40 micrograms per kg per day, or 2,800 micrograms per day for a 70 kg human. But since you have no idea how much is in the foods you are eating, these figures don't help much.

But maybe you don't need to worry? Even the lower of the toxic levels is much higher than intake levels estimated by health agencies. The average exposure of adults to acrylamide in food has been estimated to be below 0.5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, which is five times lower than the upper limit that is considered safe.

That is somewhat reassuring, but how come a European Expert Panel has unanimously decided to put acrylamide on the list of "substances of very high concern?" This makes it sound as if acrylamide is well worth avoiding at any level of intake.

How to avoid? A recent study points out that foods low in sugars and high in antioxidants have lower levels of acrylamide. This translates into standard dietary advice. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don't eat too much junk food, and you can cross acrylamide off the list of food issues you need to spend much time worrying about.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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