Food authorities and governments responding to the release of unpublished research which links frequently consumed carbohydrate foods to a cancer-causing chemical, have been seeking to reassure consumers.
The Swedish research, which was released before publication because of the alarming nature of the findings, found that processed high-carbohydrate foods, such as bread, crisps, biscuits and cereals, have toxic levels of acrylamide, a chemical linked to cancer. The acrylamide is formed during cooking, or when the foods are heated during processing.
The Food Standards Agency in the UK said in a statement that consumers do not need to change their diet in light of the research.
It said that acrylamide is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and so these findings might also be significant for human health. However, the chemical was not found in any raw or boiled food investigated so far, and there have been no previous reports of acrylamide in foods at these levels.
The FSA statement said: "The Food Standards Agency is aware that this work has been published. Acrylamide has never before been found at these levels in foods, but we do take this work seriously and will investigate the issue further. In the meantime, there is no need for people to change their diets."
The US Wheat Foods Council, a nonprofit organisation which aims to increase public awareness of the health benefits of grains and fibre, also responded to the research. It said that the study contributes to consumer confusion as conflicting nutrition information makes its way to the spotlight.
``The grains industry takes the health of consumers very seriously. Our first priority is to ensure they have access to information that helps them make sound health decisions. We plan to evaluate the study further, but it is important to remember extensive research has shown that carbohydrate-rich grain foods have been found to provide many health benefits. In fact, many studies have shown the consumption of enriched or whole grain foods may help prevent cancer,'' said Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council.
The Council referred to the US Department of Agriculture Food Guide which recommends Americans eat six to 11 servings of grain foods, such as bread, each day. These complex carbohydrates provide folic acid, fibre, phytochemicals, and other vitamins and nutrients essential for health.
``We need to keep this in perspective, this is one study, done on rats, in a laboratory. We are not discounting the study findings, however, this study has not been peer-reviewed and has not been published in an academic journal. In addition, it is important to note the Swedish authorities have not taken any action to alter consumer consumption of these foods,'' Adams said.
Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a nonprofit consumer education consortium of doctors and scientists, encouraged consumers to regard the study with scepticism. ``There is no evidence whatsoever that humans who eat the observed levels of acrylamide are exposed to any risk of any type of cancer,'' she said.
However the research released this week showed that many of the foods we eat contain almost toxic levels of the chemical.
The American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC), an international organisation of grain scientists and other professionals, also noted that when analysed in their raw state or when boiled, the foods used in the study showed no traces of acrylamide.
In a statement the AACC said : "The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies acrylamide as a 'medium hazard probable human carcinogen'. We are taking this research very seriously and are investigating the issue further as no previous work has shown acrylamide at these levels in these foods."
David Lineback, chair of AACC's Scientific Advisory Panel, has convened a group of AACC experts who are looking into the claims brought forth by Stockholm University and the Swedish National Food Administration. The Association said it is requesting a copy of the research paper, based on a new analytical procedure developed by the Swedish National Food Administration.
"Until we can review the research, it is impossible to issue specific recommendations to remedy the situation for consumers or the food industry if indeed there is a problem," said Lineback, director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the University of Maryland. He concluded that it is important to gather much more information.