Report: Potato chips, french fries contain substance that may cause cancer

Wednesday, April 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) _ Potato chips, french fries and other high-carbohydrate foods contain a substance that may cause cancer, according to a study released Wednesday by Swedish food authorities.

The substance, called acrylamide, forms in varying levels when carbohydrates are heated in a certain way, such as by frying potatoes or baking bread, researchers said.

``The discovery that acrylamide is formed during the preparation of food ... is new knowledge,'' Leif Busk, chief researcher at the National Food Administration, told a news conference. ``It may now be possible to explain some of the cases of cancer caused by food.''

The governmental agency, following up on research by a group of scientists at Stockholm University, studied more than 100 foods bought in Swedish stores and restaurants and determined that ``fried, oven-baked and deep-fried potato and cereal products may contain high levels of acrylamide.''

The agent has been classified as a ``probable human carcinogen,'' in food, but experts not involved with the study cautioned that no link to cancer had been confirmed.

Officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not immediately comment, but food scientists in the United States urged consumers to be patient and not overreact to the Swedish study.

``I think we need to step back a little bit and wait for greater discussion of the issue and see the findings presented in more detail,'' said Carl Winter, a toxicologist at the University of California at Davis. ``The most important thing is not the presence or absence of any type of ingredient, but how much is there.''

Winter pointed out that it was unusual for such results to be released before publication in a scientific journal and said more investigation was needed.

``I would caution consumers to be a little patient here,'' he said. ``Cancer's a very scary word, but one has to understand how these tests are done.''

The Swedish agency said the findings have been submitted to unspecified international researchers and to the 15-nation European Union for consideration, but they felt the information was important enough to release now.

``I am quite sure that this is a problem everywhere and we need to do something about it,'' Busk said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes acrylamide as white, odorless, flake-like crystals that are used mainly in treating drinking water and for industrial purposes and can cause cancer in people exposed to high levels for a long period.

Mary Ellen Camire, a food scientist and nutritionist at the University of Maine, was skeptical about any link to cancer and said it was important to remember that whole-grain bread and potatoes contain a lot of important nutrients.

``The risk-to-benefit ratio is hard to estimate,'' she said. ``We eat a lot of strange chemicals, but that's life. You just have to get a balance.''

Busk estimated that acrylamide could be responsible for several hundred of the 45,000 cancer cases in Sweden each year, based on experiments in which rats were fed fried food, but he declined to be more specific about the possible cancer risk.

The Swedish agency did not issue new guidelines on what or how to eat, although researchers pointed out that it's always more healthy to avoid fried foods.

``Do not stop eating these foods, but beware of what you eat, eat more cooked food, more vegetables,'' said Lilianne Abramsson Zetterberg, a toxicologist with the government agency.