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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cooking Controversy

Air Date: Week of

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The Swedish government recently released data showing a probable human carcinogen is formed when high starch foods are baked or fried. But, there’s a controversy surrounding the data. That’s because the study hasn’t undergone the standard process of scientific peer review. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Swedish environmental reporter David Damen about the research.


CURWOOD: In April, the Swedish government released a study indicating a possible health risk in carbohydrate-rich foods that are baked or fried. Things like french fries, potato chips, biscuits. The research found that the chemical acrylamide is formed during the high temperatures of baking and frying. Acrylamide is classified as a probable human carcinogen. And up ‘til now, it was not thought to form naturally, but only in the manufacture of plastics and other industrial products.

The U.N.’s World Health Organization has called the results alarming and will hold a meeting next month to examine the issue further. But there’s controversy surrounding the data since the Swedish government released its study before it went through a standard scientific review.

And, here to talk with us about this is David Dahme. He’s a Swedish freelance journalist, specializing in environmental and health issues, who’s written for Sveriges Natur and other publications. And he’s been covering the acrylamide story. David Dahme, welcome.

DAHME: Thank you.

CURWOOD: David, the U.N.’s World Health Organization has set a maximum allowable level of acrylamide in drinking water at– I think it’s one microgram per liter. How do these unexpected results in food compare to that water standard?

DAHME: Well, the levels are much higher, I mean amazingly higher, like 35 to 40 times higher than in water. So, I mean, this is one of the major reasons for the alarm.

CURWOOD: What do observers say about the scientific validity of this research and what it might mean for human health?

DAHME: They’ve been questioning the way that the test’s been conducted. Only animals have been tested. And, what you need is really epidemiologic research to get an honest and more steady ground to really study the effects on a human population. And you need to have sort of a much broader base to make these conclusions that they made.

CURWOOD: Here in the United States, our Food and Drug Administration says it’s requesting information on the Swedish study. And it won’t be able to evaluate it until the FDA’s own chemists have had a good look at it. And, in fact, a spokesperson for the agency said that it’s a danger, that people may hear about these results and undercook their food in a dangerous way. I’m wondering, what guidance is the Swedish government giving to the public there about these foods?

DAHME: Everyone expected the food authorities to issue new advice to come out, saying that you should really now stop eating potato chips and all this. But they say, "No, it’s too early, really." I mean, they insist on not giving out any new advice which is sort of a bit contradictive to the alarm.

CURWOOD: The Swedish government decided to do this research after it was informed of the results of similar work done at the University of Stockholm. The university work has been accepted for publication in Scientific Journal. But until it’s made public, the researcher won’t talk about it. So we don’t know her results.

But, we do know that her study has passed muster. It’s been peer reviewed, as it said in the business, by a panel of scientists. But this isn’t the case for the government work. What does the Swedish government say about why it took this highly unusual step of holding a press conference to release the results of their study directly to the public without going through the customary peer scientific review?

DAHME: Well, they’re saying that they are perfectly aware of the way it works in the academic world, knowing that they still felt that the amount of acrylamide found in foods was so alarming that they thought in order to reduce any damage they just had to go public about the whole thing.

CURWOOD: The Swedish government, both in Sweden and abroad, has been criticized for releasing the data in this unorthodox way. What are these critics saying?

DAHME: There’s been some indications that the whole thing was staged in order to get funds. One newspaper found out that just before this happened, the authority, food authority, applied for additional money. But they didn’t get it. So they were in desperate need for some new additional government money to continue their work and to extend their work.

CURWOOD: Now, what do the researchers of the original university work have to say about the government’s early release of this data?

DAHME: Well, they are clearly disturbed here. I mean, they have to guard their own reputation, of course, in the academic world, their own careers. And so, they feel that they, more or less, forced somehow to present this result at an early stage.

CURWOOD: Where do you think this goes from here, David? What happens next in this story?

DAHME: The scientific world will have a round of debate now. Actually, it could be a worldwide debate on this way of not sort of following the given rules.

CURWOOD: David Dahme is an environmental journalist in Sweden. David, thanks for taking the time with us today.

DAHME: Thank you.



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