French Fries and Chips may cause Cancer | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.04.2002
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French Fries and Chips may cause Cancer

A Swedish study has found alarmingly high levels of a probable cancer-causing agent in staple foods like French fries, potato chips and cereals. Such foods could pose a health risk to millions around the world.


Not only fattening--possibly deadly

You might think twice before ordering that next super-sized fries.

Researchers at Stockholm University have found that acrylamide, a probable cancer-causing agent, is formed in high concentrations when carbohydrate-rich foods are heated.

The foods in question include such staples as bread, French fries, potato chips and rice.

Scientists found that an ordinary bag of potato chips may contain up to 500 times more acrylamide than the maximum concentration the World Health Organization (WHO) allows in drinking water. French fries sold at McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants in Sweden contained up to 100 times the equivalent of the WHO limit for water.

"I have been in this field for 30 years and have never seen anything like this before," said Leif Busk, head of Sweden’s National Food Administration’s research department, at a press conference unveiling the study results.

The findings were deemed so important that the scientists took the unusual step of going public with their research results before publishing them in an academic journal or having them undergo peer review.

Dangerous Compound

Acrylamide is a colorless or white crystalline substance that is water soluble. It is known to cause damage to the human nervous system and cancer researchers say it has been found to induce gene mutations and stomach tumors in animals.

The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies the substance as a medium hazard probable carcinogen.

The WHO has ruled that one liter of drinking water should contain no more than one microgram of acrylamide. New European Union drinking water standards to go in effect at the end of 2003 lowers that level to 0.1 micrograms per liter.

Boiling is Better

Swedish researchers tested protein-rich hamburger steaks and detected an acrylamide build-up related to the heating process.

They then tested carbohydrates and found that heating potatoes formed a acrylamide build-up between 12 and 40 times greater than that in the heated hamburgers.

"This was surprisingly high and implied a remarkably high cancer risk stemming from a single compound," said researcher Margareta Tornqvist.

While fried, oven-baked and deep-fried potato and cereal products contained high levels of acrylamide, boiling the same products did not form the carcinogen, she said.

Food Industry Response

The study’s results were news to the food industry.

Stefan Eriksson, marketing manager for Burger King’s subsidiary in Sweden said: "We have received the information and we are evaluating what it will mean."

Sweden’s McDonald’s chain told Reuters that the company was taking the results seriously, "but it is important not to draw hasty conclusions."

Sweden’s food administration said the analysis, based on more than 100 random samples, was not extensive enough for the agency to recommend the withdrawal of products at this point.

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