Many people know the feeling of that combination of early morning calamities: You can’t find your shoes, your coffee turned out bitter. Thank goodness your toast came out right—brown and crispy, just like you like it. But you might want to think twice before taking a bite: As the BBC reports, British food scientists just declared that browned toast might be bad for your health.
You can thank a chemical called acrylamide—and the British Food Standards Agency—for the recommendation. In a new campaign called “Go for Gold,” the agency is urging everyone to opt for a golden color on starchy potatoes and toasted bread and recommending that people do not store raw potatoes in the refrigerator if they are to be roasted or fried.
Why reduce acrylamide? The chemical has been classified as a neurotoxin and a carcinogen. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has given acrylamide a 2A (“probably carcinogenic to humans”) rating on its classification scale. In 2002, it was first found in foods by Swedish scientists and the United Nations and World Health Organizations convened a meeting on the chemical. Since then, scientists have studied the chemical’s cancer-causing properties in both lab animals (in which it has been found to increase cancer risk in high doses) and in humans (in whom its effects are still being studied).
Acrylamide is formed when the sugars and amino acids inside some starchy foods are exposed to temperatures above 248 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the FDA, the longer foods like potatoes or bread cook, the more acrylamides they accumulate. It can also be found in roasted coffee beans. Though frying seems to cause the most accumulation, baking and roasting do, too.
So should you throw away your toaster and give up those beloved fries? Not too fast, writes statistician David Spiegelhalter of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication. He points out that despite the recent campaign, which will doubtless reignite fears of the chemical, the effects that have been found are only at extremely high exposures.
“To be honest, I am not convinced it is appropriate to launch a public campaign,” he writes—especially given that there’s no current guidance on just how much acrylamide does harm or how people who do reduce their consumption will benefit.
Don’t confuse acrylamide with the chemicals produced when meat is charred—high consumption of well-done or fried meats has been linked to cancer in humans, though it’s not clear that it actually causes cancer and no current consumption guidelines have been put in place.
When it comes to meat and potatoes, proceed at your own risk—but you may be better off putting down that slice for fear of obesity, Spiegelhalter points out. The condition has been linked to at least 13 kinds of cancer, 42 percent of all new cancer diagnoses and a host of other health problems, instead. But if you do decide to keep chowing down on your favorite carbs, it may be time to turn down that oven or toaster just for good measure.