Do burnt chips raise risk of cancer?

Sanjay Tanday investigates whether women are at higher risk of cancer if they eat overcooked foods.

What is the story?
Women who eat overcooked fried, roasted or toasted foods may be at an increased risk of developing cancer, media reports have claimed.

Dutch researchers found that women who regularly eat overcooked foods were twice as likely to develop ovarian or endometrial cancer compared with women who did not consume overcooked foods often.

They believe that the chemical acrylamide, produced when food is cooked, is to blame for the increased cancer risk.

Five years ago, Swedish researchers sparked a health scare when they discovered that many household foods such as bread, breakfast cereal and potatoes contained acrylamide, which is known to damage DNA.

The findings promoted the EU to advise people to avoid eating burnt toast or golden brown chips because of the high levels of acrylamide.

This latest study appears to have renewed concerns over the safety of eating overcooked foods by showing, for the first time, that acrylamides in the diet can increase the risk of cancer.

What is the research?
The reports are based on the findings of a study that examined whether there was any association between acrylamide intake and ovarian, endometrial and breast cancer in women.

For the study, the researchers analysed data taken from the Netherlands Cohort Study, which included 62,573 women aged 55-70. The women selected were all non-smokers, to eliminate the influence of smoking, a known source of acrylamide.

At the start of the study, the participants were asked to complete an extensive food questionnaire, which included questions on the amount and frequency of consumption of specific foods.

Measurements of the levels of acrylamide found in a number of common foods were obtained from the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority.

The participants were followed up through the Dutch cancer registries and after 11 years, 327 women were found to have developed endometrial cancer, 300 were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 1,835 with breast cancer.

The women with cancer were then categorised into five categories according to their acrylamide intake levels.

The researchers found that women in the group who consumed the highest amount of acrylamide, mean intake of 40.2 microgram/day, were twice as likely to develop endometrial or ovarian cancer than women with the lowest intake, mean intake of 8.9 microgram/day.

No link was, however, found between breast cancer and acrylamide intake.

What do the researchers say?
Lead researcher Dr Janneke Hogervorst, from the department of epidemiology at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, said: 'GPs should advise women to limit their intake of chips and crisps, which contain high acrylamide levels.

'Do not fry chips meant to be prepared in the oven because this produces more acrylamide.

'When preparing food, it is important that you do not fry at temperatures that are too high because this will brown or burn the food and again increase the levels of acrylamide.'

It is important that women also eat plenty of fruit and vegetables as they can help to offset the adverse effects of an unhealthy diet, she said.

'But this is the first observation of an association between dietary acrylamide intake and cancers in humans. Therefore, it is important that these results are confirmed by other studies, before far-reaching conclusions can be drawn,' added Dr Hogervorst.

What other researchers say
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said that women should not be unduly worried by the findings: 'It is not easy to separate out one component when studying the complex diet of ordinary people, so further research is needed.'

Acrylamide levels are highest in carbohydrate-containing foods, such as chips and crisps, but other factors need to be firmly ruled out - especially being obese or overweight, which is strongly linked to endometrial cancer and probably to ovarian cancer, said Dr Walker.

Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2007; 16: 2,304-13

Informing patients

  • Women who regularly eat overcooked food like chips may double their risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer.
  • Overcooking food increases acrylamide levels in food.
  • Further research is required to form a conclusive link between acrylamide intake and cancer risk.
  • GPs should advise women not to eat burnt food and maintain a balanced diet.
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