We’ve all done it. We’ve popped the bread in the toaster and gone away and forgotten about it. The next thing we know, the smoke alarm’s going off and our toast resembles a lump of charcoal. Some of us will consign it to the dustbin, but others adhere to the old adage, waste not want not, and continue to consume it, attempting to overcome the burnt flavour with lashings of their favoured topping.
For years, there have been rumours circulating that burnt toast is carcinogenic but, realistically, is there any evidence for this?
Studies have shown that a chemical called acrylamide is formed naturally when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures (anything above 120˚C). Food items that this applies to are potatoes in various forms, e.g. roast, chips, crisps etc., bread and some cereal products. The sugars in the foods react with naturally occurring amino acids when exposed to high temperatures to form acrylamide.
Scientists tested the impact of acrylamide on rodents and it was found that exposure to the chemical increased the risk of developing several types of cancer quite significantly. As a consequence of these results, food scientists are concerned that this evidence indicates there is a potential cancer risk to humans. There are a few caveats to this, however. It should be noted that the rodents were subjected to exceptionally large doses of the chemical, doses which would be far greater than any amount contained in your Sunday roast potatoes or a bag of crisps, for example. Studies in humans are still incomplete and are, at present, inconclusive. It is impossible to say that a chemical will affect animals and humans in exactly the same way so the results must be considered rationally and cautiously, but it is sensible to pay attention to the scientific findings and take some precautions.
This year, the Food Standards Agency has launched a campaign called, ‘Go for gold’. Contrary to how it might sound, they are not encouraging people to enter the Olympics, but have issued guidelines on how to attain the optimum shade of gold when cooking your starchy foods. With any form of cooking, whether it be frying, roasting or toasting, the goal should be to achieve a light golden colour. Cooking starchy food for too long and at too high a temperature will increase the amount of acrylamide. They also advise against keeping potatoes in the fridge as this can cause the sugars to multiply, thus raising the amount of acrylamide in the end product once cooked. Always check the guidelines on the packet when cooking things like oven chips. The food industry is attempting to do what it can to reduce the acrylamide concentrations in food so it would be prudent to follow their cooking guidelines.
It is easy to be alarmed by these reports about such staple fixtures of our diets, but it is important to remember that the studies on humans are inconclusive and that the risk is not yet substantiated. The Food Standards Agency recommends that a balanced and moderate diet including your standard 5 a day will help reduce the risk of cancer. Let moderation be our watchword and maybe that piece of toast really should just go in the bin.
Here is a video from the Food Standards Agency with some basic information on Acrylamide and their ‘Go for Gold’ Campaign.