Do Potatoes and Toast Pose a Cancer Risk?

If you like your toast this dark, you may want to consider lightening up a bit. Malyugin/Shutterstock

If you like your potatoes roasted to a deep golden brown or your toast brown and crunchy, you may want to rethink your culinary preferences.

The Food Standards Agency, the government organization tasked with food research and food safety in the United Kingdom, has launched a campaign about the potential dangers of cooking starchy foods like potatoes and breads at high temperatures. The problem is a chemical called acrylamide, which may have the potential to cause cancer.

Acrylamide is used in many industrial processes, according to the National Cancer Institute, including the production of paper, dyes and plastics. It's also used during the treatment of drinking water and wastewater, and is found in various consumer products, such as food packages and various adhesives.

Researchers have found that acrylamide can also be produced when certain foods are roasted, toasted, fried or baked at high temperatures for long periods of time. Certain amino acids and sugars in the food react, creating acrylamide.

Is acrylamide dangerous?

"The scientific consensus is that acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer in humans." That's how the FSA sums up its research.

Acrylamide increased the risk of several types of cancers when it was given to rats and mice in drinking water in lab tests, according to the American Cancer Society. The dosage, however, was as much as 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels of the chemical that people might be exposed to in foods. Most of the human studies asked individuals to fill out questionnaires every few years about what they eat. Those studies have not shown a clear increased risk related to acrylamide intake.

Based on the animal lab studies, the EPA classifies acrylamide as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” Similarly, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen.” And the National Toxicology Program classifies acrylamide as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” based on the studies in lab animals.

Changing your cooking and storage habits

roasted potato wedges
Roasting potatoes at high temperatures for a long time can create a potentially dangerous chemical. Perry Svensson/Shutterstock

Based on these classifications and the FSA's campaign, you may want to consider lightening things up a notch in the kitchen. The FSA particularly recommends targeting a "golden yellow color or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread."

In addition, don't keep raw potatoes in the refrigerator. Colder temperatures can increase overall acrylamide levels. Instead, it's best to keep raw potatoes in a cool, dry place above 42 degree Fahrenheit, suggests the FSA.

In addition to getting the word out about the chemical with this campaign, the FSA is working to reduce levels of acrylamide in processed foods. Acrylamide can be found in wide range of processed foods made from plants including chips, crisps, toast, cakes, biscuits, cereals and coffee, according to the FSA.

Steve Wearne, director of policy at the Food Standards Agency, said most people don't even know that acrylamide even exists.

"We want our campaign to highlight the issue so that consumers know how to make the small changes that may reduce their acrylamide consumption whilst still eating plenty of starchy carbohydrates and vegetables as recommended in government healthy eating advice," Wearne told the BBC.

"Although there is more to know about the true extent of the acrylamide risk, there is an important job for government, industry and others to do to help reduce acrylamide intake."