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WASHINGTON - Popular U.S. brands of potato chips and french fries contain highly variable levels of a possible cancer-causing substance, according to federal research released Wednesday.
The substance, called acrylamide, made headlines last spring when Swedish scientists discovered it in snacks and other high-carbohydrate foods that are fried or baked at high temperatures. Several other European countries confirmed Sweden's discovery, and now preliminary testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is providing the first examination of how levels in some American brands compare.
The research shows acrylamide levels vary, even within the same brand of food. For example, FDA scientists bought french fries at four different Popeye's restaurants and found a threefold difference between the batches with the highest and lowest acrylamide levels. In tests of 25 bags of Lay's Classic Potato Chips, only two bags came back with the exact same level.
Testing is only in the initial stages, as hundreds more brands remains to be examined. FDA food safety chief Janice Oliver said consumers should not use these preliminary results to change what foods they eat. While high doses of acrylamide cause cancer in test animals, it is not know if the substance also harms people. An FDA senior scientist pointed out that acrylamide forms during home cooking methods too.
"This is something that's been going on a long time," he said of people's dietary exposure.
Still, FDA scientists told a panel of independent scientists that the big variability does suggest it may be possible to reduce levels of acrylamide in foods. Food manufacturers already are working with the government to figure out why acrylamide levels are so variable.
Scientists suspect an amino acid called asparagine is the culprit. When asparagine is heated with certain sugars such as glucose, a chemical reaction forms the acrylamide. Potatoes are especially rich in both asparagine and glucose, although the amino acid is in numerous carbohydrates and grains. So a different batch of potatoes could yield different acrylamide levels once they're fried.