By Marc Kaufman, Washington Post Staff Writer
A chemical produced in the cooking of starchy foods such as potato chips and french fries poses a significant but still undetermined risk to consumers, a panel of experts concluded yesterday.
Members of the committee, convened in Geneva by the United Nations’ World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, said the scientific evidence to date convinced them unanimously that the chemical, known as acrylamide, was a “major concern,” and called on food processors to reduce levels of the compound. But the panel members also said there was not enough information available to make recommendations about which foods consumers should eat or avoid.
“After reviewing all the available data, we have concluded that the new findings constitute a serious problem,” Dieter Arnold of Germany’s Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers, who chaired the three-day meeting, said in a statement. “But our current limited knowledge does not allow us to answer all the questions which have been asked by consumers, regulators and other interested parties.”
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said, “The overriding thing the committee concluded is that, given that we know acrylamides are cancer-causing in animals and probably in humans, it is intolerable that they are in foods at the levels found and we have to find a remedy. But there is not enough information to make any consumer recommendations because we need more research.”
The 23 health and food specialists were primarily from universities and food agencies in Europe, the United States and Japan. They were called to the special meeting after Swedish researchers in April found high levels of acrylamide in baked and fried starches including potatoes, breads and crackers. Government scientists in Britain and Norway have found similarly high levels in local foods.
Researchers believe that acrylamide has been formed for centuries through cooking, especially at high temperatures. But the Swedish results were the first to conclude the levels were so high they could be harmful, and could explain why some people develop certain cancers.
According to Arnold, many potentially cancer-causing agents are found in food. He said, for instance, that fried or grilled meat produces a substance known to cause cancer in animals. But he said the concern over acrylamide was much higher because it is much more common in human diets.
Arnold said the expert panel had difficulty coming to conclusions because the number of foods analyzed remained small at about 200, and because so little was known about how the chemical was formed during cooking. Follow-up consultations are planned.
Researchers at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as some American companies, are also testing for acrylamide.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a U.S. consumer group, announced this week that researchers had found high levels of acrylamide in some American products.
Acrylamide, which is used to produce plastics and dyes and to purify drinking water, has been found to cause cancer in rats, and it is listed by WHO as a probable human carcinogen. But some scientists contest that and say that animal studies reveal little about whether a substance will actually cause cancer in humans.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company