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Air Date: Week of

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Acrylamide is a probable human carcinogen that was recently discovered in baked or fried starchy foods. A recent World Health Organization meeting called for more research on the chemical since it is present in so many staple foods. Host Steve Curwood talks with Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest about what consumers can do.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The World Health Organization is voicing concern about a probable human carcinogen found in a wide range of popular foods. Acrylamide is the culprit. And, it’s formed in the preparation of fried and baked starchy foods such as the cereals on your breakfast table, and the fries at your local fast food joint.

According to the WHO, acrylamide’s potency as a carcinogen is on par with cancer-causing substances found in other food, for instance, those formed in charbroiled meats. The WHO is calling for more research.

I’m joined now by Michael Jacobson. He’s the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. Mr. Jacobson, your organization sent off a number of food brands that U.S. consumers would be very familiar with, to be tested for acrylamide. What kind of results did you get?

JACOBSON: Potato chips and french fries were amongst the most contaminated foods. Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, cold cereals, crackers contain some contamination. Bread contained a little bit of contamination. So it appears that acrylamide forms when carbohydrate-rich foods are cooked at a high temperature, more than boiling, baking or frying. So, potato chips and french fries are at the top of the list.

CURWOOD: Now, some of these foods that appear to have relatively high levels of acrylamide are also foods that I think of as relatively healthy. Cheerios, for example, bread. What should a confused consumer do?

JACOBSON: Well, I think the point, now, is not to be totally paranoid. There’s no way to avoid every microgram of acrylamide. But I think we ought to focus on changing our diet with respect to the most contaminated, least nutritious foods. And those would be french fries and potato chips. Now, nutritionists have been saying for decades to cut back on those foods. And now we have, yet, another reason to do so.

CURWOOD: So, how does this fit into what we know about the influence of diet on cancer, do you think?

JACOBSON: Cancer experts believe that diet accounts for about one-third of all cancers. So, that may be 150,000 a year. That’s cancer deaths. There are actually more cancers. We estimate that acrylamide, it’s probably maybe several percent of diet-related cancers. You know, it’s a moderate number. Acrylamide in food is not causing as many cancers, say, as tobacco causes. That’s, obviously, the big, number one cause of cancer. But it’s not negligible. And that’s why the World Health Organization has just issued a memorandum calling this a serious problem.

The big challenge is, first, to figure out what leads to acrylamide formation. What are the chemical reactions? And then, how do you block those chemical reactions? There was a similar situation 30 years ago when scientists discovered that nitrite preservatives in bacon and hot dogs led to the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines. Fortunately, scientists were able to figure out that if they added a safe additive, ascorbic acid or Vitamin C, that greatly inhibited the reaction. And we need to try to find something like that in potato chips, french fries, breakfast cereals, and whatever.

CURWOOD: In California, there’s a law called Proposition 65. It has a list of over 700 toxic chemicals that this law says businesses cannot intentionally expose anyone to without first providing a warning. And acrylamide is on that list. Now I understand that attorneys in California have notified companies, including McDonald’s and Burger King, that they should have a warning on their french fries. How responsible do you think that action is?

JACOBSON: If Proposition 65 resulted in warning labels on thousands and thousands of foods, it could get to a situation of nobody paying any attention to warnings, if they’re everywhere. It may be that its main benefit will be to force companies to reformulate their products, change the way they’re produced to avoid the presence of the carcinogen.

This has come out of the clear blue sky to fast food companies, to breakfast cereal-makers and others. And, it’s going to take some time to sort out. And, I think the public has to hope that the government will give sensible advice, and that scientists will figure out a solution to the problem.

CURWOOD: Michael Jacobson is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

JACOBSON: Thanks so much, Steve.




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