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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
Bread and crisps in cancer risk scare
Boy eating chips
Hidden dangers in fried, carbohydrate-rich foods
Staple foods including bread, chips and crisps, may contain high levels of a substance believed to cause cancer, a study suggests.

Tests showed they all contain high quantities of acrylamide, a chemical which is classified as a probable human carcinogen.

Researchers in Sweden found acrylamide was formed when carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes, rice or cereals are heated.

Such foods could pose a potential health risk to millions of people around the world.

I have been in this field for 30 years and I have never seen anything like this before

Leif Busk, food safety adviser
The research was deemed so important that scientists took the unusual step of going public with their findings before the details had been officially published in an academic journal.

The study was carried out by Stockholm University in collaboration with experts at Sweden's National Food Administration, a government food safety agency.

Leif Busk, head of the Food Administration's research department, said: "I have been in this field for 30 years and I have never seen anything like this before."

The study found that an ordinary bag of crisps may contain up to 500 times more of the substance than the top level allowed in drinking water by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Fried food risk

French fries sold at Swedish franchises of US fast-food chains contained about 100 times the one microgram per litre maximum permitted by the WHO in drinking water, the study showed.

One milligram, or 0.001 gram, contains 1,000 micrograms.

The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies acrylamide, a colourless, crystalline solid, as a medium hazard probable human carcinogen.

Acrylamide induces gene mutations and has been found in animal tests to cause benign and malignant stomach tumours.

It is also known to cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous system.

Mr Busk said: "The discovery that acrylamide is formed during the preparation of food, and at high levels, is new knowledge.

"It may now be possible to explain some of the cases of cancer caused by food."

The Food Administration said fried, oven-baked and deep-fried potato and cereal products may contain high levels of acrylamide.

Experts at Cancer Research UK believe the study is highly significant.

The charity's carcinogens expert Professor David Phillips said: "We know already that the 'Western diet' leads to a different spectrum of cancers from those that are common in other parts of the world.

"It is likely that many aspects of our diet, rather than a single culprit, are responsible for this.

"We do not know for sure what the impact on human health of these levels of acrylamide in food is, but because it is a known animal carcinogen it is advisable that its formation during food preparation or production be minimised."

One crisp danger

Cancer Research UK advises consumers to avoid a diet excessively high in fat and fried food.

It suggests people eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid overcooked or burnt food.

"For the food industry there is now a responsibility to monitor acrylamide formation in food products and to find ways of minimising its formation," said Professor Phillips.

Margareta Tornqvist, an associate professor at Stockholm University's department of environmental chemistry said the consumption of a single potato crisp could take acrylamide intake up to the WHO maximum for drinking water.

We have received the information and we are evaluating what it will mean

Stefan Eriksson, Burger King subsidiary
However, she said the product analysis, based on more than 100 random samples, was not extensive enough for the Administration to recommend the withdrawal of any products from the supermarket shelves.

Stefan Eriksson, marketing manager for Burger King's subsidiary in Sweden, said: "We have received the information and we are evaluating what it will mean."

The Food Standards Agency said consumers do not need to change their diet in the light of this report.

The WHO said the study results were worrying, but that more research was needed.

Jorgen Schlundt, head of the WHO's food safety programme, said: "I am not saying that the world should simply stop eating these foods."

Mr Schlundt said the WHO planned to gather experts at its Geneva headquarters to examine the question, but it might be a couple of months before such a meeting could be held.

"We are not saying that everybody is going to be dying from this in 30 years, but we are saying that there is a potential problem and that we need to know more," he said.

See also:

24 May 00 | Health
Super-broccoli 'to fight cancer'
19 Nov 99 | Medical notes
Bowel cancer
07 Jun 99 | Medical notes
Cancer: What to eat to beat it
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