That brown crust on fried potatoes or dark color of burnt toast signals the presence of a chemical that could be bad for your health.
It’s enough of a concern that Britain’s Food Standards Agency this week began urging people to minimize their exposure to acrylamide, a contaminant produced in certain foods when they are fried, baked, roasted or otherwise cooked at high temperatures — above 120 degrees Celsius, or 248 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Our research indicates that the majority of people are not aware that acrylamide exists,” said Steve Wearne, the agency’s director of policy, in a statement.
Should you be concerned? Here’s what you need to know:
What's the worry?
Acrylamide is considered to be a “probable human carcinogen” based on animal studies, but the evidence from human research is still incomplete, the National Cancer Institute noted.
Which foods are affected?
The chemical is found mainly in foods cooked at high heat and made from plants and grain products, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Acrylamide also forms in coffee when the beans are roasted.
The British agency found the highest concentrations in snacks, potatoes — particularly fried potatoes — and cereals, such as breakfast cereals. Think starchy foods. Other research also indicated potato chips and French fries have higher levels of acrylamide than other foods.
At the other end of the spectrum, little or no acrylamide forms in dairy, meat and fish, or foods that are steamed or boiled.
Should you stop eating foods that are fried, roasted, or baked?
The FDA said no. It simply advised people to eat a healthy diet and avoid over-frying or over-toasting food. Cooking potatoes to a golden yellow color rather than a brown color will help reduce acrylamide formation, as will toasting bread to a light brown hue rather than dark brown.
The British campaign urges people to “Go for Gold,” or remember to aim for a golden yellow color or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread. It also advises against keeping raw potatoes in the fridge, since that can increase acrylamide levels. Store potatoes in a dark, cool place, such as a closet or a pantry.
A nutritionist weighs in:
If you eat a lot of acrylamide-containing foods, you may want to avoid the fried potatoes altogether, said Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York and author of “Younger Next Week”.
If you’re concerned about acrylamide, it’s wise to eat boiled or steamed foods — especially vegetables like potatoes — instead of the baked or fried versions, she added. If you do bake or fry, do it only occasionally, keep the portions small and avoid the very brown or burnt parts.
“That being said, no one food or beverage will optimize or destroy your health — the total dietary pattern and overall lifestyle matter much more,” Zied told TODAY.
“It’s OK to cut back or stop eating French fries and chips… to specifically reduce acrylamide exposure, especially if you eat them often, but a better reason to do so is to leave more room in the diet for a variety of vegetables, fruit, and lean protein foods including fish, eggs and nuts.”