Bruschetta, Garlic Toast, White Bread, Italy, Olive Oil

Well it was bound to happen sooner or later. Apparently, browned toast and crispy roast potatoes are a potential cancer risk. Maybe the deeper implications of this are that everything is a potential cancer risk and that we merely have not found out yet. Either way, the campaign comes from the Food Standards Agency who have warned against the consumption of starchy foods at high temperatures.

The campaign aims to raise awareness of the chemical acrylamide, a chemical that forms in some foods when cooked at temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. The evidence for this comes from experiments on mice. Some say that this evidence is insufficient to prove a link to cancer forming in humans, and whilst experimentation with animals has its flaws, it does tend to provide reliable results.

So, how terrified should we be exactly? For one thing there are a great many potential causes of cancer and a great many public health concerns that are arguably more pressing that this, potentially, minor link to cancer. Obesity for example poses a plethora of health problems that could arguably do with more exposure. Then, of course, there’s smoking, arguably still the biggest single cause of cancers. From the standpoint of public health policy, this sort of thing tends to risk the general public, something else they can’t eat any more, or to not pay attention to. But the discovery of and research into new potentially carcinogenic agents is vital to the research into cancer. Through understanding the behavior of molecules like acrylamide, it is possible to gain an enriched understanding of how cancer is caused in humans, thereby leading to advances in preventative medicine.

If however, you were to be diagnosed with cancer after having eaten a diet that consisted of little else apart from burned roast potatoes and charred toast, your doctor would then be able to give you sound advice as to how to alter your diet. And because of the nature of cancer, it can only take a single mutation for cells to become cancerous – so it might seem silly but with the aim of gaining a better understanding of disease, which is the purpose of this research, it might end up being justified.

In spite of this however, it is not going to stop people from getting annoyed when they are told they can no longer cook their roasties how they like, or their toast, so in terms of making a public health statement, the upshot of this research is likely to be a bit toothless.

Sam Cottle