BELTSVILLE, Md. -- A possibly cancer-causing substance appears not only in popular fast foods, but in everyday, nutritious staples, too, government scientists say.
Acrylamide, a substance that at very high doses causes cancer in animals, made headlines last spring when Swedish scientists discovered it lurking in popular foods like french fries and chips.
High-carbohydrate foods cooked at very high temperatures seem to contain far more acrylamide than other foods.
But products with lower levels that are eaten more frequently than junk-food snacks -- from vitamin-packed breakfast cereal to toast and coffee -- increase the U.S. population's overall exposure, the Food and Drug Administration said Monday.
That means someone who dislikes fries but guzzles coffee or eats cereal every morning might eventually absorb as much as a fry-lover, suggests the FDA's new computer model.
Don't change your diet, FDA scientists stressed. Cereals, for instance, are fortified with vitamins and minerals that make them a far better choice than many breakfast options -- especially since no one knows yet if acrylamide really poses a cancer risk to people.
But as manufacturers hunt for ways to remove the chemical from popular foods, "the point of this is ... no one food is contributing to the majority of the acrylamide" in the U.S. diet, said FDA scientist Donna Robie.
Removing it from a single-food type -- just fries or just cereal -- would nudge overall exposure down by less than a quarter, the FDA's model estimated.
"There are going to be no quick fixes," added Robert Brown, a nutritionist at Frito-Lay Inc., which is experimenting with acrylamide-lowering techniques. "We have a very complex problem involving the entire food supply."
Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble outlined some simple steps that might eventually remove acrylamide from at least some foods, without risking safety or taste. Options include adding the amino acid cysteine or minerals such as calcium that may block acrylamide formation, or changing cooking techniques.
"The research, through preliminary, looks very encouraging," said FDA food chief Joseph Levitt.
The FDA and safety regulators worldwide are studying how acrylamide gets into food and if enough is there to pose any risk to people.
Scientists have discovered that it forms when a naturally occurring amino acid called asparagine is heated to very high temperatures -- baking or frying, not boiling or microwaving -- with certain sugars such as glucose.
Potatoes are especially rich in both asparagine and glucose, leading to the high acrylamide levels in chips and fries.
Cooking increases the level in some other foods. Soft bread, for instance, contains very little acrylamide, but toasting more than quadruples the chemical level.
Other foods, such as milk, frozen vegetables and meat, contain little or no acrylamide.
The FDA, extrapolating from national diet studies, estimates that seven food types probably account for most exposure.
Fries and chips had the highest levels, from 16 to 48 micrograms per serving.
Other foods made the list with far lower levels because so many people eat so much of them:
--Toast, at 9.8 micrograms per serving, and soft bread, at 2.2.
--Breakfast cereal, 7.3 micrograms.
--Cookies, 6.6 micrograms.
--Coffee, 2 micrograms.
Other popular foods, including pizza, have yet to be measured for acrylamide.