As if the calorie count on a supersize serving of McDonald's French fries weren't scary enough, one of the big health stories last week was a report suggesting that eating any fried or baked starch could increase your risk of getting cancer. According to Swedish researchers, frying potatoes or other starchy foods triggers the formation of an organic molecule called acrylamide, which has been shown to cause cancer in lab rats.
Frankly, it's hard to know what to do with a report like this. The evidence is so preliminary. There's no scientific paper to read, no clinical-trial results to analyze, just a press release and some figures on an Internet site. Even the scientists from the University of Stockholm and the National Food Association of Sweden, who scheduled a press conference to announce their findings, are not calling for any special action--just further study. They acknowledge that most of the problems associated with acrylamides stem from breathing them, not eating them.
And if the Swedish results hold up, there still may not be any cause for alarm. "Just because you can detect something doesn't mean it's significant," says Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Maine in Orono. Our tools for detecting the presence of minute quantities of contaminants, she points out, are far more refined than our understanding of how the body deals with them.
Not that frying is such a great thing, healthwise. Food scientists have long known that our cooking processes create a wide variety of carcinogens. Grilling or broiling a nice marbled steak, for example, dramatically increases the concentration of heterocyclic amines--compounds that under laboratory conditions cause the kind of genetic damage that leads to cancer. No one has proved, however, that eating grilled steaks increases your chances of getting cancer. (Nor is anyone likely to try; the endeavor would be too difficult.) You would expect that after millions of years of eating meat, our bodies might have evolved a few mechanisms for getting rid of the carcinogens in burned flesh. But if you're worried about carcinogens, you can reduce your consumption by marinating meat before grilling it.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not defending deep frying. The last thing we need is to burden our hearts--not to mention our waistlines--with more of the artery-clogging fat found in any fried food. But there are already plenty of things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer, starting with a vow to quit (or not start) smoking. "You get more acrylamide from smoking than you do from food," says Lois Gold, director of the Carcinogenic Potency Project at the University of California, Berkeley. You should also eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, go easy on red meat and exercise regularly. Taking these steps can't guarantee that you will never develop cancer, but they may tip the odds in your favor.
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