There’s yet another reason to steer clear of carbs in your diet. But this time, the issue isn’t about fat levels and calories. Instead, it has everything to do with the way your food looks.
That’s because recent research has uncovered a link between carcinogens and foods as simple (and common) as burnt toast. Keep reading for more on the story…
The danger of a new (yet old) food chemical
You may have heard or read that grilled meats are unhealthy because the high heat causes them to form carcinogens. The problem resides in the charred, black flesh that grilling fans love.
Today’s article explores a similar problem — burnt carbs, or burnt starchy foods. According to the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), people need to stop consuming singed toast, charred potatoes, and all forms of burnt root vegetables and bread.
Additional foods to avoid when burnt, according to the FSA, include coffee, crackers, and dried fruits—but none of those pose the same level of threat as burnt starches.
The potential risk lies in the chemical acrylamide, which readily forms in plant-based, starchy foods when they’re cooked at high temperatures through baking or frying. When the sugars and amino acids normally found in these foods bind together in the presence of heat, acrylamide forms.
The chemical acrylamide was only discovered in 2002, so there’s not much research on it. Health officials know at this point that acrylamide has been linked to higher cancer rates in animals, because of the damage the chemical causes to DNA.
Yet, it’s a common chemical. Acrylamide has been part of the human diet ever since people started cooking their food. In fact, it’s present in at least 40 percent of the daily calories consumed by the average American. The compound can form in foods that are baked, grilled, roasted, toasted, or fried.
You’ve probably already ingested this chemical
The scare over acrylamide and its link to cancer began in southwestern Sweden in October of 1997. Farmers were suddenly losing cows to death or paralysis, and several dead fish were spotted in a local river. Simultaneously, workers at a nearby construction site began having symptoms of nausea and prickly feelings in their fingers.
The problems were traced to a nearby major construction project tasked with drilling a tunnel through a ridge to make space for a railway. After a series of leaks in the tunnel, the construction company shot 1,400 tons of Rhoca-Gil, a sealant, into the tunnel walls. The sealant went on to leak high levels of acrylamide into the surrounding ground and surface water.
The reactions experienced by humans and animals in the area led scientists at Stockholm University to launch tests on the construction workers, as well as on a control group. The researchers found significant levels of acrylamide in the blood of both. From there, they identified processed food as a source for the compound, with starchy foods cooked at high temperatures carrying the highest concentrations.
Keep in mind that, like many studies on the interplay between carcinogens and toxins and how they affect health, this research was done in a lab with animal studies. The unlucky animals who developed cancer as a result of acrylamide were pumped up with massive doses of the carcinogen, far beyond what any human is likely to consume.
According to one source, humans would need to eat their body weight in burnt French fries every day for two years to achieve the high levels of acrylamide the mice in the study were getting. Meaning the risk isn’t huge.
Because we know the risk is small, is it worth worrying about? The answer is yes, according to Professor Margareta Törnqvist, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University. She points out that some chemicals have a minimum threshold concentration. Below this concentration, they’re pretty harmless.
Yet, when it comes to chemicals that damage your DNA, there’s no minimum threshold. This means it’s impossible to know at what minimal level your DNA could be affected. But that’s exactly why cancer is so menacing. Sometimes – especially in people who aren’t very healthy to begin with — all it takes is one damaged string of DNA to morph into a pile of life-threatening cancer cells.
New meaning given to the phrase, “light cooking”
The best step to take to protect yourself is to reduce the acrylamide in your diet. Quit consuming burnt carbs and you’re basically there.
That doesn’t mean you have to quit eating starchy foods entirely. But when possible, try steaming or boiling your starches—a step that will at least work for potatoes and root vegetables.
Cooking anything at extremely high temperature – whether meats, oils or starches – appears to be a bad idea.
You could follow the lead of the FSA in Britain and “Go for the Gold” – in other words, cook your food till it’s golden yellow or lighter, then stop. Also, don’t make the mistake of storing your potatoes in the refrigerator, as the cold temperature could increase the amount of acrylamide that forms when the potatoes are cooked.
As I suggested, the news about starches is similar to reports in some of my past articles on the dangers of charbroiling any food, and particularly foods you cook on the barbecue. I recommend following the general rule of thumb that if you’ve turned your food black or brown from cooking, or if it’s smoking, it’s no longer healthy.