French fries are in the spotlight for their acrylamide content. The compound has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Experts suggest steps to avoid the danger involved but still pamper your taste buds.
The compound was first synthesized in 1949 and used as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of some plastics including some food packaging.
Small amounts of acrylamide are also used in the synthesis of dyes, ore processing, adhesives, paper and textile coatings, permanent press fabrics, sugar beet juice clarification, binders for seed coatings and foundry sand, and printing ink emulsion stabilizers.
Acrylamide has also been used in the construction of dam foundations and tunnels.
Take a potato, cut it into bite-sized pieces and drop them into a vat of hot oil and you wind up with a plate full of acrylamide-laced vegetable, scientists point out.
There are three components needed for acrylamide to form in food: a naturally occurring amino acid called asparagine, a naturally occurring sugar like glucose, and high cooking temperatures.
The temperature required depends on the properties of the food.
Initial studies suggest that at temperatures above 175 C, the level of acrylamide in deep-fried potato products increases considerably.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment reported in December 2002 that the acrylamide content rises dramatically in french fries, from approximately 300 micrograms per kilogram at a cooking temperature of 175 C to 1,100 micrograms per kilogram at 180 C.
Studies have also shown that the type of potato and the storage method may also influence acrylamide formation and the acrylamide content in the deep-fried end product, because the sugar composition varies from potato to potato.
According to the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants, acrylamide may pose a risk to human health.
At a conference of the American Chemical Society in Boston in August 2007, a team of Swiss researchers reported that they have found acrylamide in dried fruits. Their study suggests that acrylamide may be capable of being formed at relatively mild conditions through reactions that are still not fully understood. The researchers found the highest levels of the compound in dried pears and prunes.
However, at the same conference, a study by researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health reported that there did not appear to be a link between acrylamide and breast cancer in American women. The study involved 100,000 women who were followed over a 20-year period. It found that the incidence of breast cancer among women who consumed relatively high levels of acrylamide was about the same as for women who consumed low levels of the compound.
French fries and potato chips tend to contain the highest concentration of acrylamide. It's also found in other foods, such as cookies, breakfast cereals and bread, and those processed at high temperatures, such as coffee, roasted almonds, and grain-based coffee substitutes.
Again, it's not clear at what level acrylamide may pose a risk health officials say the beneficial aspects of some foods that contain acrylamide, such as whole grain cereals and breads, likely outweigh the risks.
Still to minimize the risks, experts suggest -
· Cook your fries at no higher than 170-175 C.
· Don't overcook them; a nice golden colour is good.
· Avoid dark-coloured fries. They've been in the oil too long and will have higher concentrations of acrylamide.
· Don't store potatoes at temperatures below 8 C. Lower temperature storage can increase the components that lead to the formation of acrylamide.
· Wash or soak your freshly cut potatoes before cooking them. This can reduce the components that lead to the formation of acrylamide.
Other steps you could take include toasting your bread lightly and removing the crusts. The crust tends to contain higher levels of acrylamide than the interior of the bread but the levels in bread are still well below the levels in french fries and potato chips.
If you want to avoid acrylamides and still eat your spuds, you can boil. Health Canada says its tests show boiled potatoes are acrylamide-free.