Does burnt toast cause cancer?

The Executive Summary

Q) Does burnt toast cause cancer?

A) No (or at least, there is no evidence that it does in people)

If you want more…

The Story

On 23rd January 2017, the front page of the UK “Sun” newspaper claimed “You’ve had your chips”! The Telegraph covered the story with the headline “Government warning on browned toast and crispy roast potato cancer link ‘massive overreaction‘”. (This title was subsequently changed to “Brown toast and crispy potatoes ‘a potential cancer risk'” – from government pressure? – the original title is retained by the words in the URL).

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was formed on 1st April 2000 (no joke!) After a number of incidents related to food safety (including some fatal), it was decided by the then government that it was inappropriate for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to be responsible for farming and food processing and food safety. The FSA was given responsibility for food safety (and MAFF became part of DEFRA – Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in 2001).

Over the years, as quangos are prone to do, the FSA extended its remit and became prominent in UK dietary guidelines – presiding over the change of the “Balance of Good Health Plate” to the first “Eatbadly” – sorry “Eatwell” plate in September 2007.

Andrew Lansley was Secretary of State for Health between May 2010 and September 2012. During this time, Lansley expressed enthusiasm for scrapping  the FSA. He stopped short of this, but stripped the agency of its powers in deciding what people should and should not eat.

I share this because today’s story seems to be a classic case of a scaled-down organisation trying to flex its muscles again.

Go for Gold!

The FSA has launched a campaign, with a well known UK Olympic champion, Denise Lewis, called “Go for Gold”. The idea is that people should have food ‘golden’ in colour and not burnt to a crisp. The agency said that it “wants to help people to understand how to minimise exposure to a POSSIBLE (my emphasis) carcinogen [something that causes cancer], called Acrylamide.”

They continue: “Acrylamide is a chemical that is created when many foods, particularly starchy foods like potatoes and bread, are cooked for long periods at high temperatures, such as when baking, frying, grilling, toasting and roasting. The scientific consensus is that acrylamide has the POTENTIAL (my emphasis) to cause cancer in humans.”

The evidence

You can link through at the end of the campaign press release to see the research, which has been undertaken by the FSA in this field. You will be underwhelmed. (The link was broken – try this).

On the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) breakfast news this morning, Cancer Research UK cautioned that there was no evidence to support this assertion (and that there were far bigger things to worry about like obesity). If you look at the American Cancer Society website, it summarizes the evidence as follows:

Studies in the lab

“Acrylamide has been found to increase the risk of several types of cancer when given to lab animals (rats and mice) in their drinking water. The doses of acrylamide given in these studies have been as much as 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods.

“Studies in people

“Since acrylamide was first found in certain foods in 2002, dozens of studies have looked at whether people who eat more of these foods might be at higher risk for certain cancers.

“Most of the studies done so far have not found an increased risk of cancer in humans. For some types of cancer, such as kidney, endometrial, and ovarian cancer, the results have been mixed, but there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake.”

That’s worth repeating: “There are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake.”

There you have it! I spy with my little eye an agency trying to justify its existence. Where’s Andrew Lansley, the one time you need him! ;-)

Here’s a short interview on BBC Radio Tees from Monday 23rd January, with John Foster

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.