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.


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.


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!


Give chai a try

Getting too much caffeine from coffee (Photo: Wikimedia)?

Getting too much caffeine from coffee (Photo: Wikimedia)?

Drinking too much coffee and getting the caffeine jitters? You could of course go for boring decaf coffee but it wouldn’t save you from the acrylamide and furan toxins formed in all roasted coffee.

Acrylamide is the subject of a new opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) currently under public scrutiny. The draft report is recommending that acrylamide exposure be reduced as much as possible since it is a proven carcinogen in animal experiments. It is impossible to totally eliminate acrylamide from the normal diet, but since it is a numbers game any significant reduction in acrylamide exposure will similarly reduce the risk of developing cancer. EFSA recently published an excellent consumer guide on how to reduce acrylamide exposure.

Furan is another substance that has proven to be a carcinogen in animal experiments. Since furan formation is linked to the development of the coffee aroma it is an intrinsic component of roasted coffee and cannot be avoided.

And just so you know, coffee substitutes might be even more dangerous. According to levels of acrylamide in food reported by EFSA, coffee substitutes based on chicory carried at least three times more acrylamide than ordinary roasted coffee.

Go for exciting chai

You could go for ordinary tea, but why not try the exciting chai with less than a third of the caffeine content of normal coffee. Chai is a centuries-old beverage which has played an important role in many cultures. Although the word chai is simply the Hindi word for tea, it is much more to it. Chai is a flavoured tea beverage made by brewing black tea with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs. It can be prepared black, with milk, and with or without sugar. Originating in India, the beverage has gained worldwide popularity, becoming a feature in many coffee and tea houses. Although traditionally prepared by a decoction of green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ground ginger, and black peppercorn together with black tea leaves, retail versions include tea bags for infusion, instant powdered mixtures, and concentrates.

There has been a phenomenal growth in the popularity and interest in chai in the Western world over the last decade. As chai has become very common at over-the-counter specialty coffee and tea shops, it is now as easy to order a chai latte as it is a cafe latte or a cappuccino. Many industry analysts are predicting that chai will eventually become as popular and common as coffee is now.

Great variety of spices used


A great variety of spices used in producing chai (Photo: Wikimedia)

Drinking chai is part of life in India and most Indian’s are amazed at all the current fuss in the West. The spices used vary from region to region and among households in India. Traditionally, cardamom is a dominant note, supplemented by other spices such as cloves, ginger, or black pepper; the latter two add a heat to the flavour and the medicinal aspect of the drink. Other spices include cinnamon, star anise and/or fennel seeds.

In Western India, cloves and black pepper are expressly avoided, while the Kashmiri version of chai is brewed with green tea instead of black tea and has a more subtle blend of flavourings including almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and sometimes saffron. Other possible ingredients include nutmeg, mace, chilli, coriander, rose flavouring (where rose petals are boiled along with the loose-leaf tea), or liquorice root. A small amount of cumin, also considered a “warm” spice in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine/cuisine, is also preferred by some people. A pinch of turmeric may be added to aid those suffering from a fever.

The warm, aromatic flavours of chai have their roots in ancient Ayurvedic traditions. Ayurveda, meaning “life science” in Sanskrit, is a traditional system of medicine that includes the practice of yoga and the use of healing herbs and spices. It is said that Indian chai produces a warming, soothing effect, acts as a natural digestive aid and gives a wonderful sense of well being.

I tried a Hari Hai Chai

I had the benefit of trying a chai latte curtesy Hari Hai Chai recently. I am not vouching for the health claim aspects but it was difficult to resist a second cup and with so much variety possible it might take many months to explore fully.

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Go easy on the toast

We are quick to blame the food industry for all that is wrong with the food supply. Plastic residues in baby food, process contaminants in soy sauce, too much fat in the burgers, too much salt in the soup. I could go on and on and rightly so but did you know that there are some easy steps you can take as well to reduce contaminant formation? Today’s blog will focus on the simple toast. Even the most challenged cook can prepare toasted bread, but do we all know what dangers can lurk in there?

Be the master of the toaster (Photo: Donovan Govan)

Be the master of the toaster (Photo: Donovan Govan)

To state the obvious, toast is bread that has been browned by exposure to radiant heat. This browning is the result of Maillard reactions that alter the flavour of the bread. Bread has been toasted for centuries, initially to make stale bread more palatable. Open flame toasting or oven toasting have now been mostly replaced by the custom made toaster with a more precise control of the degree of toasting. And it is here you come in because you can steer the degree of browning by controlling time and temperature and thus the amount of Maillard reaction products that are formed.

The browning reaction

Just a few words about the Maillard reaction so you get the importance of the events happening during heating. It is actually vitally important in the preparation or presentation of many types of food and is named after chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, who first described it in 1912. It is a form of nonenzymatic browning involving a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars in the food, usually but not exclusively requiring heat. In the process, a complex mixture of hundreds of different flavour compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form yet more new flavour compounds, and so on. Most of these new molecules are produced in incredibly minute quantities, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavour compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction.

There are two factors, dryness and temperature, that are the key controls for the rate of the Maillard reaction. High-temperature heating speeds up the Maillard reaction because heat both increases the rate of chemical reactions and accelerates the evaporation of water. As the food dries, the concentration of reactant compounds increases and the temperature climbs more rapidly.

Acrylamide formed during toasting

Unfortunately, acrylamide is one Maillard reaction product formed at high temperatures. Production of acrylamide during heating is temperature-dependent and increases as food is heated for longer periods of time.  Its discovery in some cooked starchy foods in 2002 prompted concerns about the carcinogenicity of those foods. In laboratory studies, acrylamide had been shown to cause cancer in animals, but at levels much higher than those seen in foods. Experiments are still underway to determine whether the much lower levels of acrylamide seen in food pose a health risk to people.

Toast bread to light brown and avoid burning it (Photo: DaGoaty)

Toast bread to light brown and avoid burning it (Photo: DaGoaty)

In the meantime it may pay off to be cautious. Certain foods are more likely to contain acrylamide than others. These include potato products (especially French fries and potato chips), coffee, and foods made from grains (such as breakfast cereal, cookies, and toast). These foods are often part of a regular diet. But if you want to lower acrylamide intake, reducing your intake of these foods is one way to do so.

Toasting bread to a light brown color, rather than a dark brown color, lowers the amount of acrylamide. Very brown or black areas contain the most acrylamide. So go easy on the toaster to be on the safe side.

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Acrylamide – nothing seems to help

French fries a large contributor to acrylamide exposure (Photo: freephotouk)

Acrylamide is a chemical compound that typically forms in starchy foods during frying, baking, roasting and grilling. It is linked to the browning of food during the so called Maillard reactions. The darker the food the more acrylamide seems to be formed. It was found in food by coincidence in 2002 when examining a leak of the industrial chemical polyacrylamide from a tunnelling project in the south of Sweden. It was first thought to be an environmental contaminant. It has since been shown to actually be a process contaminant formed in food during dry heating, but not boiling.

Acrylamide received a lot of attention among scientists and the popular press over the first years of its discovery. Industry started programs to attempt to reduce its formation and household cooking instructions were issued. The toxicity of the compound was explored in more detail.

Toxic properties

The toxic effects of acrylamide in industrial exposure and in smokers have been known for some time and include damage to the nervous system and to male fertility. However, looking at potential food exposure, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization concluded that the levels required to observe such effects was 500 to 2,000 times higher than the average dietary exposure of acrylamide. From this, they concluded that acrylamide levels in food were safe in terms of neuropathy and infertility, but raised concerns over human carcinogenicity based on known carcinogenicity in laboratory animals.

Checking your consumption patterns (Photo: mikeandanna)

Attempts to confirm a cause and effect relationship in humans between acrylamide exposure and cancer is on-going. A number of epidemiological studies have looked at the correlation between acrylamide intake through food frequency questionnaires and a range of different cancers. Many studies proved negative, but there were indications that dietary acrylamide could be associated with the formation of myeloma, head-neck cancer, oesophageal cancer, endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer.

Now there is documentation of a further effect. A new report published on 23 October 2012 described maternal exposure to acrylamide and birth weight of children. A team led by Marie Pedersen from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), Spain, measured blood levels of acrylamide and its common metabolite glycidamide and found that dietary exposure to acrylamide while pregnant resulted in reduced birth weight and head circumference in the off-spring. The authors pointed to a potentially substantial public-health implication of their findings since reduced birth head circumference has been associated with delayed neurodevelopment.

Attempts to reduce acrylamide formation

Acrylamide forms from sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) during high-temperature processing of plant foods in particular such as potato crisps, French fries, bread, biscuits and coffee. In a report published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2011, fried potatoes (including French fries), roasted coffee and soft bread were identified as the major contributors to acrylamide exposure in adults, while fried potatoes, potato crisps, biscuits and soft bread were identified as the major contributors to exposure in adolescents and children. The exposure estimates for these different age groups in Europe were comparable to those previously reported in scientific literature and in risk assessments carried out by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

The food industry has been exploring ways of reducing acrylamide levels in foods without reducing desirability and taste, including using lower cooking temperatures and adding enzymes to reduce the amount of acrylamide that forms during cooking. The industry in Europe developed a “tool box” containing advice on how to reduce acrylamide formation.  Many of the recommendations should have been adopted by now. It seems the process changes have had limited success. An EFSA report published on 23 October 2012 showed only very limited changes in acrylamide levels between 2007 and 2010 in most food groups. With some good will slightly reduced acrylamide levels could be seen in some cereal-based foods for children and non-potato savoury snacks but on the contrary  acrylamide seemed to increase in coffee and coffee substitutes, crisp bread and some types of French fries.

What is the consumer to do?

Coffee – to drink or not to drink? (Photo: arimoore)

If the industry is mainly failing in their attempts to reduce acrylamide levels in food what is the consumer to do? We could of course just give up. A more sensible approach would be to be a bit more careful when heating food since acrylamide formation increases with increased heat. If toasting bread, make it only golden brown. Equally be careful with the French fries. Although coffee might delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease, it is also a major contributor to acrylamide exposure. Not an easy choice.