Last year, it was alcohol. The year before, it was processed meat products. This year – already – we’ve been informed that overcooked roast potatoes, burnt toast, hazelnut spread, biscuits and even baby food have been linked to the increased possibility of developing cancer.
It seems that hardly a week goes by without another new cancer scares in food with a medical report linking a particular food to an increased risk of cancer, to the point where you feel if there’s anything left safe to eat. In fact, it gets to the point where you might feel it’s prudent to carry on eating whatever you like, safe in the knowledge that some other medical report will eventually claim that the food in question is actually good for you.
So what’s the truth behind the headlines?
The first truth is that when it comes to attracting attention (and clicks, and shares), not much beats a cancer scare – especially when it’s linked to something we take for granted, like food. And while there’s a grain of truth to the stories – too much of this or that will create a certain effect – the scientific truth tends to be buried underneath the sensationalism, if it’s there at all.
Take the most recent story – a warning from the Food Standards Agency that overcooked starchy foods such as toast and roast potatoes can create a chemical with links to cancer. As statements go, there’s nothing false about it at all: the chemical in question – acrylamide – is a natural by-product of foods with a high starch content that are fried, roasted, baked or toasted, particularly when they’re overdone.
Is there a link between acrylamide and cancer, though? This is where we hit the first grey area, because so far the link has only been proven in testing on animals – in this case, mice. And as is usually the case in studies like this, the mice used in the study were given astronomical amounts of acrylamide before a connection was made – the equivalent of 160 times the amount of burnt toast and overdone potatoes that humans will normally consume on a day-to-day basis.
Bear in mind that a colossal amount of anything – even water – has the potential to kill you.
What to do about cancer scares in food?
While any new information about what we eat should never be dismissed out of hand, it makes sense not to panic about what you put into your body. The first and most obvious thing to do is to look beyond the headlines, because unless you’re actively reading the most clickbaity websites, the truth about the risk will be found further down the page. You need to find out:
- Whether the link to cancer has been established in humans as well as animals
- How great the increase of the risk is – in certain cases, such as the recent bacon scare, the increased risk was so minimal as to be inconsequential
- The credibility of the people who are making the claim
- What reputable organisations – such as the NHS, the European Safety Authority, the US’s FDA, etc – have said in response
The logical next step is to take the information on board and follow sensible advice on dietary matters and act accordingly. A lot of the foods that pop up in these stories – potatoes, bread, hazelnut spread, crisps, biscuits, etc – are almost always ‘treat foods’ that are to be eaten sparingly.
Instead of worrying unnecessarily about individual foods and their possible impact on your health, it is important to bear in mind that the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking is obesity so a sensible and healthy diet should always be your aim.