While reading about the Sudan 1 red dye scare here in the UK, I discovered the issue of acrylamide in processed foods.
According to the World Health Organisation, acrylamide is "known to cause cancer in animals. Also, certain doses of acrylamide are toxic to the nervous system of both animals and humans."
The UK Foods Standards Agency describes the problem:
"In April 2002, scientists in Sweden discovered unexpectedly large amounts of the chemical acrylamide in foods rich in starch that had been cooked at high temperatures. These included crisps, chips, bread and crispbreads. Acrylamide is known to cause cancer in animals and its presence in some foods may harm people’s health."
Carcinogenic crisps, chips and bread? Now that could cause a little panic couldn't it?
The WHO is worried enough to setup an international network to co-ordinate investigation into the problem and the risk communication has been commendable in how open it's been. However, I've only just heard about it. Given how government and industry work together, they're not about to broadcast any big precautions are they?
So just how concerned should one be? I tracked down the very latest conclusions about acrylamide in the summary of the 64th meeting of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee On Food Additives but you're better off reading the summary by the Heatox Project. The bottom line seems to be that the average person is getting 1/200th of the dose of acrylamide that is known to cause nerve damage to rats and 1/300th of the dose known to cause cancer. High intake consumers (which I suspect includes most children) are getting about 1/50th and 1/75th respectively.
Of course there's huge error margins in the calculations and variability with individuals so honestly, I'm not sure what to make of it yet. A Margin of Exposure (MOE) of less than 100 (i.e. more than 1/100th of a deadly dosage) is unacceptable to me. It will certainly make me think twice about that side order of fries or packet of crisps. And those kids meals are a disaster!