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Acrylamide: What Is It, and Which Foods Contain It?
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
For me, the most fascinating segment of Morgan Spurlock's documentary on McDonalds, called Super Size Me, involved the man who has become famous for eating almost nothing but Big Macs since 1972. Don Gorske is the Guinness world record holder for number of Big Macs eaten, having passed 19,800 Big Macs as of June, 2004.
Don has eaten anywhere between two and nine Big Macs per day, almost every day since 1972, and yet, his height-weight ratio and blood tests indicate that he is in relatively good health.
What I find particularly interesting is that he reports almost never eating French fries. This is in line with my personal belief that French fries are the worst item on the menu at fast food restaurants. Sure, coca cola, processed cheese, and factory farmed meats aren't much better. But what is it about deep-fried potatoes that makes them so harmful to health?
They are loaded with trans fats, known to cause immune system depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, sterility, birth defects, decreased ability to produce breast milk, loss of vision, and weakening of your bones and muscles.
French fries are also high in acrylamide, a possible carcinogen that is found in starchy foods that have been fried or baked at high temperatures.
The World Health Organization first began to look at the dangers of acrylamide in 2002 after the publication of a study in Sweden that linked acrylamide consumption with cancer. Since then, independent studies in the United States, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, and England have confirmed the link between acrylamide consumption and risk of developing cancer.
A few months after the original report out of Sweden, The Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC did its own study on the acrylamide content of the most common starchy foods in the North American diet. Their results were as follows:
|McDonalds French Fries, large||6.2 oz.||82|
|Burger King French Fries, large||5.7 oz.||59|
|KFC Potato Wedges, Jumbo||6.2 oz.||52|
|Wendy’s French Fries, Biggie||5.6 oz.||39|
|Ore Ida French Fries (baked)||3 oz.||28|
|Pringles Potato Crisps||1 oz.||25|
|Fritos Corn Chips||1 oz.||11|
|Honey Nut Cheerios||1 oz.||6|
|Boiled Potatoes||4 oz.||less than 3|
|Water||8 oz.||0.12 (EPA limit)|
Put another way, the amount of acrylamide found in a large order of French fries at a fast food restaurant is at least three hundred times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of drinking water.
"I estimate that acrylamide causes several thousand cancers per year in Americans," said Clark University research professor Dale Hattis. Hattis, an expert in risk analysis, based his estimate on standard EPA projections of risks from animal studies and limited sampling of acrylamide levels in Swedish and American foods.1
On June 16, 2005, the California-based Environmental Law Foundation filed notices with the state of California's attorney general against:
- Lay's potato chip maker PepsiCo Inc.
- Pringles maker Procter & Gamble Co.
- Cape Cod potato chip parent Lance Inc.
- Kettle Chips maker Kettle Foods Inc.
California law requires that companies warn their customers if their products contain known carcinogens. And acrylamide is listed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as a chemical known to cause cancer.
Tests conducted by the Environmental Law Foundation indicated that these potato chip brands "far exceeded the levels requiring warning labels under California law." Specifically, they noted that "Cape Cod Robust Russet potato chips exceeded the required warning level by 910 times, while Kettle Chips Lightly Salted chips exceeded the level by 505 times."
Regardless of how this most recent legal battle goes, we are already well aware of the strong link between acrylamide consumption and risk of developing cancer. Please remember that raw or boiled potatoes test negative or very low for acrylamide. Acrylamide is formed in substantial quantities when starchy foods are fried or baked at high temperatures.
The bottom line is that we should minimize consumption of French fries and potato chips. So the next time that circumstances lead you to McDonalds, do yourself a favor and be like Don Gorske. Have a Big Mac and skip the fries. Better yet, have a salad from their lighter choices menu.
1. Press release from the Center for Science in the Public Interest on June 25, 2002
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