Ignoring responsibility at your peril

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Oils aren’t always what they say (Photo: Illuminati Owl)

The agri-food industry is no innocent bystander. Maximising sales and profit is more important than looking after their customers. They cleverly invent crops tolerant to their own herbicides through genetic engineering so they can sell both seeds and encourage the spread of questionable poisons. They add sugar to many of their products for children so that people will crave sweet foods throughout life. They cheat on extra virgin oil because they can and reap the profit. They replace beef in processed beef products with cheaper horse meat to gain an upper hand. The lists goes on and on.

And rightly the public is upset. This is reflected by the many news items published by the popular press condemning the latest cheat by industry.

But what about consumer responsibility?

Acrylamide is a good example as it is formed during heating of food as we have previously pointed out. Evidence from animal studies have shown that acrylamide and its metabolite glycidamide are genotoxic and carcinogenic: they damage DNA and cause cancer. While evidence from human studies on the impact of acrylamide in the diet is inconclusive, scientists agree that acrylamide in food has the potential to cause cancer in humans as well and it would be prudent to reduce exposure.

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Go easy with the toaster (Photo: DonoVan Govan)

Thus, in early 2017, the UK Food Standards Agency issued consumer recommendations on how to minimise the formation of acrylamide during home cooking by avoiding singeing their toast or leaving roast potatoes to char in the oven.

Acrylamide is a natural by-product of heating and has been present in our food since fire started to be used for food preparation. It is formed by a reaction between amino acids and sugars when foods are heated at high temperatures (over 120°C) during frying, roasting or baking. It can thus be found in a wide range of foods including roasted potatoes and root vegetables, chips, crisps, toast, cakes, biscuits, cereals and coffee.

The formation of acrylamide can be reduced by some simple measures as pointed out by the Food Standards Agency. Aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread. Carefully follow cooking instructions on the pack when frying or oven-cooking packaged food products such as chips, roast potatoes and parsnips. Don’t store raw potatoes in the fridge as it may lead to the formation of more free sugars in the potatoes that can increase overall acrylamide levels.

Parts of the popular press objected

All sensible and practical recommendations. You would have thought that the popular press would support such a consumer initiative. But you would be wrong. Rather, parts of the press attacked the Food Standards Agency for being alarmist. Critics of the advice were quick to point out that animal studies linking acrylamide to cancer have used doses far above the average daily consumption in humans so that extrapolating the results is questionable – even assuming the effect is comparable across species.

DNA

Acrylamide is a genotoxic carcinogen.

But genotoxic carcinogens don’t follow the minimum threshold concentration rule below which they are not dangerous at all. With chemicals that damage DNA it’s a linear dose response, so even the smallest dose contributes to the risk. There is no threshold dose for the effect. And to add to the problem it is almost impossible to prove in epidemiological studies that acrylamide is a human carcinogen as its presence is too common to find a group that is not exposed at all.

Therefore, the united verdict of organisations like the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organisation, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and UK scientific advisory committees is that acrylamide has the potential to cause human cancer by interacting with the genetic material in cells. In 2015, EFSA published their risk assessment of acrylamide in food confirming that acrylamide levels found in food potentially increases the risk of cancer for all age groups. This means that acrylamide might contribute to our lifetime risk of developing cancer; although it is not possible to estimate how big this contribution may be.

Time for action

With that united front I suggest that you better follow the recommendations issued by the UK Food Standards Agency. I know that you feel safer when driving your own car compared to flying, although the probability of an accident is much higher on the road. I know that it is so much easier to blame the food industry for all ills, rather than take some responsibility for your own food handling.

Maybe it’s time for some action!

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I’d love to believe

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Red wine benefits?

I’d love to believe that the resveratrol in red wine possesses a range of health benefits including anti-cancer effects, anti-inflammatory effects, cardiovascular benefits, anti-diabetes potential and protection against Alzheimer’s. Thus good for all adult ages. A glass of wine a day might keep the doctor away.

But it might be wishful thinking. It is true that resveratrol can inhibit growth of cancer cells in a culture and in some animal models, but it is not known whether it can prevent cancer in humans. It has increased the lifespans of yeast, worms, fruit flies, fish, and mice fed a high-calorie diet, but again this has not been shown in humans. So the brutal truth is probably that the amount of resveratrol in red wine is too small to have any measurable beneficial effects in humans.

But we can still believe!

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Whisky benefits?

I’d love to believe that the ellagic acid content of whisky actually can reduce oxidative stress. Ellagic acid has been shown to have antiproliferative and antioxidant properties in a number of in vitro and small-animal models. It may directly inhibit the DNA binding of certain carcinogens, and it has a chemoprotective effect in cellular models.

But again it might be too good to be true. Ellagic acid has been marketed as a dietary supplement with a range of claimed benefits against cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems. In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called it a fake cancer ‘cure’ consumers should avoid. So not much luck there.

But we can still believe!

It might actually be premature to give up red wine and whisky completely. As antioxidants, like resveratrol and ellagic acid, are additive any contribution is useful. Complement the spirits with plenty of berries, dark green vegetables and nuts and you will not go wrong. Red wine and whisky will be outdone on the health front, but so what.

But there is more…

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Red chilli pepper benefits?

I’d also very much love to believe the latest reports that consumption of hot red chilli peppers can reduce deaths due to heart disease or stroke. Going back for centuries, peppers and spices have been thought to be beneficial in the treatment of many diseases. A new study using National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) III data collected from more than 16,000 Americans who were followed for up to 23 years, found that hot red chilli pepper consumption decreased mortality by 13%.

But unfortunately the findings, widely published by the popular press, are based solely on epidemiological data. Exploring epidemiological data, even if prospective in nature, is fraught with obstacles. The authors themselves point out that given the observational nature of the investigation, causality can only be suggested, not confirmed.

However, on the bright side there is some support for the findings in a theory that capsaicin in chilli peppers can influence cellular and molecular mechanisms that prevent obesity and modulate coronary blood flow, and also possesses antimicrobial properties that may alter the gut microbiota.

In a sign of our desperate need to find some beneficial news the popular press was inundated by citations of the positive findings. Some examples:

  • “Can eating spicy food lead to a longer life? Chili peppers could be the secret” says National Post.
  • “Spicy food could be the secret to a healthy heart and a longer life, says new study” says The Telegraph.
  • “This Is Your Body On Spicy Foods” says The Huffington Post.
  • “Eat Peppers, Live Longer?” says New York Times.
  • “Red hot chilli peppers: the way to a longer life?” says The Sydney Morning Herald.

If you’re on to a good thing the press will pick it up. Doesn’t mean it’s true though. But we can still believe!