Consumer Watchdog: Everyday carcinogen

By Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

Hot chips have one of the largest sources of acrylamide in the Kiwi diet.
Photo / Thinkstock
Hot chips have one of the largest sources of acrylamide in the Kiwi diet. Photo / Thinkstock

Cooking creates chemical flagged by food regulator

Concerns are growing over a potentially cancer-causing chemical found in everyday foods - that few people know even exists.

Toast, hot chips, potato crisps, plain biscuits, coffee and wheat-biscuit breakfast cereals have been flagged by transtasman regulatory body Food Standards Australia New Zealand as containing the chemical acrylamide.

FSANZ's website carries little-known advice on how to avoid the chemical, which is created during cooking. Tips included soaking potatoes before frying, cooking at lower temperatures and browning toast to the "lightest colour acceptable to your taste".

Two years ago the World Health Organisation determined acrylamide was neurotoxic and potentially cancer causing and called for clear labelling to raise consumer awareness around cooking and storage.

When the Herald on Sunday checked bread and frozen potato products on the supermarket shelves this week, none carried any information other than cooking instructions.

Green Party food safety spokeswoman Mojo Mathers said many Kiwis ate high-acrylamide food without knowing about the advice from local and international health authorities. She wanted clear and easy-to-read labels on packets to warn about the danger of over-cooking.

"The Government should follow California's example in requiring that companies post labels on food products with carcinogens," she said.

The responsibility to reduce the chemical should sit with manufacturers, not busy mums and dads, Mathers added.

"The food industry are the ones with the skills and ability to reduce these levels across a large amount of the food New Zealanders are eating. They are able to make technical changes to their production methods to reduce the amount of acrylamide in our food.

"For example, the temperature that potatoes are stored at influences how much acrylamide they produce, as does the temperature at which these foods are cooked."

Katherine Rich, chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council which represents the manufacturers behind the country's biggest food brands, said the chemical was cursed by its "somewhat ominous sounding name".

"The word acrylamide sounds more like a nail-hardener than a naturally occurring substance which is really just a byproduct of commercial and home cooking."

Laboratory animals were tested for acrylamide exposure but got much higher doses than the average Kiwi would consume, Rich added.

"Consume anything in extreme quantities and there is usually a negative outcome of some kind.

"Acrylamide has been part of the human diet ever since the first caveman threw a few random morsels on the fire thousands of years ago."

Rich said it could not be eliminated completely but some manufacturers had taken steps to reduce it, such as changing cooking processes.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is due to release a report on acrylamide this year.

Acrylamide on toast

It's easy enough to reduce the amount of acrylamide that ends up on your plate but shoppers approached by the Herald on Sunday had never heard of it.

"Just as well I like my toast only lightly warmed," Liv Davies, 31, said. "My partner has everything crispy and brown though. It would be handy if there was more [information] on the packets; [manufacturers] get away with a lot."

Students Paige Venter and Emily Ridgeway were surprised to hear some favourite foods were sources of the chemical.

"I grill my chips. I like my toast brown," Venter said. "Everything seems to cause cancer these days."

The World Health Organisation recommends cooking toast, hot chips and roast potatoes to the lightest colour possible and avoiding potato products stored in the fridge or freezer.

- Herald on Sunday

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