Bread, biscuits, potato chips and french fries contain alarmingly high quantities of acrylamide, a substance believed to cause cancer, according to Swedish scientists. The research carried out at Stockholm University in cooperation with Sweden’s National Food Administration, a government food safety agency, shows that when carbohydrate-rich foods are heated, they form acrylamide, a substance that has been classified as a probable human carcinogen.
“I have been in this field for 30 years and I have never seen anything like this before,” says Leif Busk, head of the food administration’s research department. Their findings show that an ordinary bag of potato chips may contain up to 500 times more of the substance than the top level allowed in drinking water by the World Health Organization. French fries sold at Swedish franchises of Burger King and McDonald’s contained about 100 times the maximum permitted by the WHO for drinking water.
Acrylamide is a colorless, crystalline solid that induces gene mutations and has been found in animal tests to cause benign and malignant stomach tumors. It is also known to cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous system. “The discovery that acrylamide is formed during the preparation of food, and at high levels, is new knowledge. It may now be possible to explain some of the cases of cancer caused by food,” Busk says.
“Fried, oven-baked and deep-fried potato and cereal products may contain high levels of acrylamide,” the National Food Administration says. “Acrylamide is formed during the preparation of food and occurs in many foodstuffs…Many of the analyzed foodstuffs are consumed in large quantities, e.g. potato crisps, french fries, fried potatoes, biscuits and bread.”
Among products analyzed in the study were potato chips made by a Finnish company, as well as breakfast cereals made by Kellogg, Quaker Oats and Nestle, and Old El Paso tortilla chips. “For us, these are completely new findings which have never before been known to the world’s foodstuffs industry,” says the Finnish potato chip company. Stefan Eriksson, marketing manager Burger King’s subsidiary in Sweden, says, “We have received the information and we are evaluating what it will mean.”
Busk says the findings applied worldwide, not only to Sweden, since the raw food used in the products showed no traces of acrylamide. The substance only appeared after they were heated. The analysis, based on more than 100 random food samples, is not extensive enough for the administration to recommend the withdrawal of any products from supermarket shelves. “Frying at high temperatures or for a long time should be avoided,” Busk says. “Our advice to eat less fat-rich products such as french fries and crisps [potato chips] remains valid.”
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Mineral water is marketed for its purity. But Swiss scientists are say some brands may be contaminated with human feces.
In 11 of the 29 European brands of bottled mineral water tested by Christian Beuret and colleagues of the Cantonal Food Laboratory, the team found signs of the virus that causes more than 90% of the world’s stomach upsets, called Norwalk-like virus or NLV.
“We didn’t believe the results at first, so we got them independently confirmed by a private Swiss lab,” says Beuret. “We think human feces are sporadically contaminating the water either at the source or some time during the bottling procedure.” They have no idea how this happens.
They don?t know if the water poses a health risk, but evidence suggests that low levels of the virus in mineral water may give some elderly people gastroenteritis. Barry Vipond of the Public Health Laboratory in Bristol, England, says, “Current views are that you only need a very low level – in the range they found – of active virus for it to be infectious.”
Beuret’s team used a water testing process called RT-PCR. The mineral water industry says RT-PCR is prone to contamination. A statement from a leading company that markets bottled water says, “The RT-PCR technique is not suited to the routine analysis of potentially very weakly contaminated water.”
A year later, nine out of ten virus-containing bottles of water studied by the researchers were still contaminated. Tamie Ando, of the National Center for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, says, “Although we don’t know whether the strains found in the mineral water are dangerous, the work is very important because we need to learn how our environment has been contaminated by these viruses.”
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