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Acrylamide leaving your French fries?

August 4, 2008 |  6:05 pm

Looks like French fries and potato chips will soon pretty much be health food items. Well, not quite. But they will contain less acrylamide, a chemical shown to cause cancer in rats and mice. (Unless, that is, you decide you prefer home cookin'. Then they'll be as acrylamide-y as ever.)

Several companies -- Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance Inc. (which makes Cape Cod chips) -- have  agreed to lower acrylamide levels in their goods to settle a lawsuit filed by the state's attorney general in 2005. This is the latest in a number of developments stemming from that lawsuit: Last year, Wendy's, KFC, Burger King and McDonald's agreed to pay fines and label their products with a Proposition 65 warning -- you know, those perturbing signs you run into in parking lots, dentists' offices and by the specialty sodas in BevMo alerting you to some unspecified risk to your body or the body of your unborn child. And Procter & Gamble has pledged to halve acrylamide levels in Pringles to avoid having to label its products with a Prop 65 warning.

Acrylamide is formed when sugar and the amino acid asparagine react in high heat in what's called the Maillard reaction, which always makes me think of ducks but was actually a chemical reaction discovered by the scientist Louis Camille Maillard. (It is what's responsible for the brown crispy, tasty bits on roast meat.) One way in which acrylamide formation can be reduced is by kicking asparagine out of the spud -- using an enzyme to convert asparagine into the related amino acid, aspartic acid.  (Companies are commercializing enzymes to do just that, with cute names like "Acrylaway.") Exposure to other chemicals, such as various acids and antioxidants, may also help.

And from the other end of things, spud researchers have used genetic engineering to reduce the amount of sugar in potatoes.

Given the choice between fries with carcinogen and fries without carcinogen, I'll take mine without, of course. But really, how worked up should we get about this acrylamide business?

First off, we've been merrily frying potatoes in our home kitchens for decades. Second, many other foods contain acrylamide -- coffee and olives, to name just two. Third: Links to human cancer haven't been established, and I've sometimes wondered what doesn't cause cancer in a rodent if you toss enough at it.

Finally, fruits, vegetables and other foods naturally contain many chemicals that can cause cancer in high doses in rodents. Here's a partial list, from a December 2005 L.A. Times article:  benzyl acetate, caffeic acid, coumarin, quercetin -- found in such healthful, upstanding items as apples, basil, broccoli and tomatoes. You can read about that here. And if you want to read more about the acrylamide issue, go here.

When it comes to fried potatoes and giant bags of potato chips (even, alas, the limon-flavored ones, which are as close as I know to a perfect food, and I don't intend to give them up), could one, perhaps, tentatively argue that the fat, calories and starch they contain are a greater risk to this country's increasingly hefty population than acrylamide? I mean, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture ever decided to re-categorize potatoes as non-vegetables, the research would soon show we eat no vegetables at all.

-- Rosie Mestel

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