Overcooking of potatoes form acrylamide that poses cancer risk, laboratory tests show that acrylamide in the diet causes cancer in animals , has potential to cause cancer in humans as well.
Potatoes are among the world’s favorite vegetable. India has insatiable taste buds for potato. Be it potato tikki burgers, french fries, tikki chaat or pakodas, potato is definitely India’s favorite snack. There is a warning now. Last month, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide – a chemical substance formed by a reaction between amino acids and sugars. It typically occurs when foods with high starch content such as potatoes, root vegetables and bread, are cooked at high temperatures (over 120°C) in a process of frying, roasting or baking. During high temperature cooking, a process called the Maillard reaction occurs. The naturally present water, sugar and amino acids combine to create a food’s characteristic flavour, texture, colour and smell. This process can also produce acrylamide. The duration and temperature of cooking determines the amount of acrylamide produced: long durations and higher temperatures form more acrylamide than short durations and lower temperatures.
Acrylamide is not deliberately added to foods; it is a natural by-product of the cooking process and has always been present in our food. Acrylamide is found in wide range of foods including roasted potatoes and root vegetables, chips, crisps, toast, cakes, biscuits, cereals and coffee. Laboratory tests show that acrylamide in the diet causes cancer in animals. While evidence from human studies on the impact of acrylamide in the diet is inconclusive, scientists agree that acrylamide in food has the potential to cause cancer in humans as well and it would be prudent to reduce exposure. Most recently, in 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its first full risk assessment of acrylamide in food which confirms that acrylamide levels found in food potentially increases the risk of cancer for all age groups. Studies by World Health Organization also suggest that acrylamide is a human carcinogen which has the potential to cause cancer by interacting with the genetic material (DNA) in cells.
How to reduce acrylamide at home
Go for gold
As a general rule of thumb, aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread.
Check the pack
Check for cooking instructions on the pack and follow carefully when frying or oven-cooking packaged food products such as chips, roast potatoes and parsnips. The on-pack instructions are designed to cook the product correctly. This ensures that you aren’t cooking starchy foods for too long or at temperatures which are too high.
Don’t keep raw potatoes in the fridge
Don’t store raw potatoes in the fridge if you intend to cook them at high temperatures (e.g. roasting or frying). Storing raw potatoes in the fridge may lead to the formation of more free sugars in the potatoes (a process sometimes referred to as ‘cold sweetening’) and can increase overall acrylamide levels especially if the potatoes are then fried, roasted or baked. Raw potatoes should ideally be stored in a dark, cool place at temperatures above 6°C.
Eat a varied and balanced diet
While we can’t completely avoid risks like acrylamide in food, eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes basing meals on starchy carbohydrates and getting your 5 A Day will help reduce your risk of cancer.
What industry is doing to reduce acrylamide?
The food industry has undertaken a lot of work to identify and implement measures to reduce acrylamide levels in food. FoodDrinkEurope (which represents the food and drink industry’s interests at the European and international level) has produced a toolkit that outlines ways of reducing acrylamide in food manufacture for a variety of foods and processes. The British Hospitality Association and other stakeholders are also working with the FSA to develop an easy-to-follow best practice guide that can be used by food business operators (FBO) in the catering and food service sectors. This will help to identify and implement measures to reduce acrylamide levels in food they cook.
According to Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, “manufacturers had already taken steps to cut the levels of acrylamide in foods, but it was time for consumers to be made more aware of the risks. He said studies showed babies, children and adults in the UK consumed too much acrylamide from food. We are not saying people should worry about the occasional meal but this is about managing risk over a lifetime”.
Cutting potatoes into larger wedges reduces their surface area, thereby cutting down the level of acrylamide that can form. Crinkle-cut chips are worse than normal chips as they have a larger surface area.
Current Situation in India
Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) prescribes Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) standard CODEX STAN 114-1981 for quick frozen french fried potatoes which needs freezing to be done at -18oC (0o F) at the thermal centre after thermal stabilization. But it is advised that raw potatoes should ideally be stored in a dark, cool place at temperatures above 6°C. Storing them below this temperature increases the risk of acrylamide formation when they are fried or roasted at high temperatures. The website of McCain, a global giant potato products manufacturing company, prescribes a temperature of 175 – 220 degrees for cooking its various potato products, which are sold frozen, much above the temperature of limit 120 degrees where acrylamide gets formed.
Tanuja, a Vadodara based dietician, said, “Warning issued by FSA is actually suggesting us to eat potatoes in a better and responsible way. There was also an American study last year that linked fried of potatoes to hypertension and high blood pressure. So, it is important to adopt healthy cooking of potatoes. People should avoid damaged potatoes and green potatoes as they contain poisonous chemicals that cannot be destroyed by cooking”.
Initiative by FSSAI for Safe and Nutritious Food
Recently, FSSAI organized a workshop on social mobilization for ‘Safe and Nutritious Food: A way of life’. It focused on building a coalition of corporates and design specific interventions that companies can take up. FSSAI Chairperson Ashish Bahuguna urged corporates to “get actively involved in the efforts to spread the message of food safety and nutrition” while FSSAI’s CEO Pawan Agarwal told about various initiatives by the regulator for spreading the message of food safety and nutrition at different places like home, schools, work places and eating places, etc.
So, next time when your taste buds crave for any baked or fried potato dish, try and maintain a balanced and responsible diet.