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Can Burnt Toast and Potatoes Actually Increase Your Cancer Risk?

How crispy chips, fries and other starchy favorites could be influencing your health.

You might have seen the headlines and shocked reactions on your newsfeed: The Food Standards Agency (FSA), the British equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has launched a campaign in the UK warning against the dangers of burnt toast and roasted potatoes. Could these everyday foods really give you cancer as the campaign suggests?

Toast, potatoes, pastries and other starchy foods form a chemical called acrylamide when cooked above 250 °F. Acrylamide is typically used in manufacturing to make plastic goods and adhesives, and it’s found in cigarette smoke as well. But concern was raised in 2002 when the chemical was first discovered in foods.

When rats and mice were fed large amounts of acrylamide in lab studies, they developed several types of cancer, including thyroid and testicular cancer. It’s not clear whether humans would experience the same results, but it would be unethical to feed people acrylamide to find out. Some studies, which relied on questionnaires about people’s eating habits, didn’t find higher cancer rates among those who ate more acrylamide-containing foods. However, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that it makes sense to avoid substances that have been linked to cancer in animals.

Should you change your eating habits?
Both the FSA and the FDA have warned consumers about the possible risks of acrylamide from food and cigarettes in the past, but this is the first time a full-scale public health campaign has been launched. FSA recommendations include:

  • Cooking toast, potatoes and pastries to a yellow or golden-brown, rather than a dark brown or black
  • Storing potatoes outside of the refrigerator in dark, cool places like your pantry

The ACS suggests that boiling, steaming and microwaving starchy foods may be safer than frying, baking or broiling them as well. The ACS also states that french fries and chips may contain the highest levels of acrylamide among potatoes, while boiled potatoes contain none of the chemical.

Of course, one of the best ways to lower your acrylamide intake and reduce your cancer risk is to avoid cigarettes. For help quitting, visit Sharecare’s Quit Smoking page.

To learn more about how diet can influence your health, read Slash Your Cancer Risk With 10 Simple Food Swaps.

This content was published on January 24, 2017.