Are Carcinogens From Cooking Killing Us?

Now that sugar, carbs, fat, and salt are all considered indulgences that most of us have to use in moderation—not to mention worrying about the mercury levels in fish—it's nice that there are a few tasty (non-herbivore) food groups left to tuck into without pangs of conscience. Or are there?

Just when you thought it was safe to grill a steak, bake a beetroot, or BBQ a shrimp or two come summer, along comes a new nutritional nasty to spoil the fun. This time, it's a carcinogen.

Acrylamide is a chemical found in plastics, grout, cosmetics, cigarette smoke, and now, it seems, your dinner.

Quite by chance, a group of Swedish scientists first realized it was in our food in 2002, after testing tunnel workers who were exposed to acrylamide after a leak. The inexplicably high levels found in all of the subjects tested led to more widespread inquiries and a World Health Organization investigation. As it turned out, the acrylamide levels were linked to the tunnel workers' diets, and testing proved that it was in a lot of people's systems who didn't work anywhere near a tunnel.

Acrylamide forms in certain types of food when cooked at high temperatures—namely carbohydrate products, starchy vegetables, grains, and coffee. Roasting, baking, broiling, grilling, and frying food (above 280˚F) can all induce this critical change, but dairy, mea,t and fish are the least affected. Foods that are boiled, braised, or steamed also don't typically form acrylamide.

So what does this mean in terms of staying healthy? The FDA's official line so far is that they "don't know yet" the long-term health impacts of consuming acrylamide on a daily basis. Some experts suggest that even though acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in animals, there may be little risk for us at normal levels of human consumption.

Then again, when you consider the potential consequences of vilifying potato chips, crackers, fried and baked goods, and many popular cooking methods, it's probably not a health scare that anyone's willing to provoke. The effect on the food industry, should the levels of acrylamide in food be high enough to cause cancer, would be horrendous.

So how can you eat healthier in light of this potential danger?

Avoid crackers, potato chips, baked breakfast cereals, cookies, and foods with carbs cooked at high temperatures. Make light toast. Stop frying food or flash fry if you have to. Wherever possible boil, steam, or braise when cooking. And here's the one that'll really ruin your morning: Cut out the coffee.

In research carried out by United Nations agencies in 2006, coffee was shown to be responsible for up to a third of our acrylamide consumption—only potato chips and fries were worse.

The acrylamide content in coffee depends on the roast. Levels peak in medium roast, are lower in half roast, and are less again in dark roast coffee.

But it's not just the naughty-but-nice stuff that contains acrylamide. The creepy chemical is hiding in cooked veggies too... roasted asparagus, fried spinach, and roasted beets are particularly nasty offenders.

So, on one hand, we could start eating raw food, blanching, boiling, stir-frying, and buying up every "Bland Food is Good Food" cookbook on the shelf. On the other, we could just wait and see. Some say we may have already built up an immunity to acrylamide, whereas others say it could be a huge contributor to cancer.

What am I gonna do? Sure I might opt for boiled eggs instead of a fried and consider carrots over potato chips as an afternoon snack, but will I give up my morning coffee? Over my dead body.

Will you change your diet knowing of the potential dangers of acrylamide? Talk about it in the comments.