Do roast potatoes give you cancer?

Should we really be avoiding burnt toast and roast potatoes?
31 January 2017

Interview with 

Jasmine Just, Cancer Research UK


The UK Foods Standard Agency have recently issued a health warning about the chemical acrylamide - found in starchy foods such as bread and potatoes - saying that it may cause cancer. The warning coincides with the launch of a new health initiative called ‘go for gold’ which encourages us to only cook foods to a golden yellow, rather than brown or black, to help to reduce the amount of acrylamide. Tom Crawford spoke to Jasmine Just at Cancer Research UK…

Jasmine - Acrylamide is essentially a naturally occurring chemical so that means we don’t add it to foods, it just naturally is produced. It’s mainly found in foods when those goods are cooked at high temperatures and for particularly long periods of time so it’s usually when foods are baked, or fried, or roasted or toasted.

If we’re looking at the foods that acrylamide is found in most commonly, it’s in things like crisps, chips, biscuits, bread, and cake. These foods that I’ve mentioned contain the building blocks for this acrylamide to form basically. There’s a special reaction, it’s got quite a long name, it’s called the malide reaction, so basically that’s a chemical reaction that occurs between sugars and amino acids that are in the foods. When these two things, the sugars and amino acids, react and also with water, that produces this reaction and it creates acrylamide. That’s what give the brown colour to food and it can also change the taste of food as well, so it gives it that roasted, charred taste that you might know.

Tom - So we’re thinking roast potatoes or brown toast?

Jasmine - Yes, that’s right. That the malide reaction.

Tom - Why is acrylamide bad? What’s the potential issue here?

Jasmine - The concern has basically come from a number of animal studies that have found that acrylamide has the potential to damage our DNA inside ourselves and, basically, DNA damage can lead to cancer. It’s really important though that people remember that the same process hasn’t been established in humans. So we don’t have the data, we don’t have the evidence to say that’s there’s also a link between acrylamide and cancer risk at the moment, so we need more research in that area.

Tom - How significant is the actual risk?

Jasmine - The risk is basically been described as a ‘probable risk.’ It is in no way a definite risk and by that I’m talking about cancer specifically. If we compare the risk of acrylamide with things like smoking, obesity, basically I can’t do that. We can’t say that if you have X amount of acrylamide your risk is going to be Y. We just don’t have the data or the evidence to be able to put a figure on how high your risk of cancer would be based on your acrylamide intake.

Tom - It sounds to me from what you were saying earlier about it occurs in the largest amounts in biscuits, crisp. They’re generally unhealthy so we want to be avoiding these foods if possible anyway?

Jasmine - Yes, that’s exactly right. And that’s our message from Cancer Research UK that we don't want to tell people not to eat specific foods. We don’t want to say avoid having a roast potato now and then or try and avoid eating burnt toast. Our main message is that people should be maintaining a healthy, balanced diet in the first place, and a healthy balanced diet is one that’s going to be low in these sorts of food anyway. So yes, as you mentioned, crisps, chips and biscuits. They’re not everyday foods, they’re things that shouldn’t be eaten regularly to begin with.

Tom - Are there any other ways we can reduce the risk?

Jasmine - The FSA has also recommended, for example, if you are going to be cooking chips, just follow the cooking recommendations on the packet. They’ve also made some recommendations such as avoid storing your potatoes in the fridge, which increased the potential for the potatoes to develop acrylamide when you cook them.

Tom - Storing potatoes in the fridge seems quite crazy to me.

Jasmine - Yes. I personally don’t store them there.

Tom - No, me neither.

Jasmine - If you do - don’t! The other thing is that Cancer Research UK really want to get across the point that there are other things that will have a much bigger impact on your cancer risk. So, if you’re a smoker, stopping smoking. If you drink a lot of alcohol, try and cut down. Keeping a healthy weight. They’re all things that are going to have a much bigger impact on reducing your cancer risk. The odd crispy potato isn’t going to do you any harm at all.