Health experts concerned about levels acrylamide in food

Friday, June 28, 2002

GENEVA -- Scientists have a "major concern" that a substance in certain high-carbohydrate foods -- such as french fries and potato chips -- may cause cancer, they said Thursday after a three-day U.N.-sponsored conference on the subject.

To the relief of the snack and fast-food industry, however, the experts did not issue guidelines warning consumers against eating foods with the potentially cancer-causing substance, acrylamide. Instead, they said further study is necessary to determine the extent of the risk -- and how to reduce it.

"It is a matter of high concern and we need to do research quite urgently in order to be able to reduce the levels of acrylamide in food," said Dieter Arnold, a scientist with Germany's Federal Institute of Health Protection for Consumers, who chaired the session.

The meeting was convened following a study by Sweden's National Food Administration this year that found high levels of acrylamide in french fries, some brands of potato chips, some types of breakfast cereal and crispbread and some types of bread fried or baked at high temperatures.

Boiled foods did not contain the substance.

The findings of the Swedish study had been greeted with some skepticism -- not least because they were announced at a government news conference rather than subject to peer review in a scientific publication.

After the Swedish findings were announced, studies in Norway, Britain, Switzerland, Germany and the United States made similar observations.

Still, health experts were concerned enough to call the special meeting in Geneva, which grouped 23 scientists from universities and national food authorities, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization sponsored the conference.

Arnold said there were no plans to single out specific foods that should be avoided.

"On the basis of the information we currently have we cannot give consumers very specific advice such as please avoid eating chips of this and that brand. This will not be done," Arnold said.

"We would rather say that people should eat a balanced and varied diet, which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and that they should moderate their consumption of fried and fatty foods."

Unexplained differences were found between brands and types of products. For instance, said Arnold, breakfast cereals that were coated in sugar and then processed seemed to contain higher levels of acrylamide.

French fries cooked until they were brown rather than just lightly done also contained higher levels, he said.

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