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Starches containing carcinogen research blitz { July 14 2003 }

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Worry Over a Carcinogen Spurs Research Blitz

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2003; Page A06

Seldom have scientists or consumers been so blindsided by a potentially troubling discovery as they were by last year's finding by Swedish researchers that fried and baked starchy foods contain significant amounts of acrylamide, a known cancer-causing chemical.

In a conscious effort not to be alarmist, the researchers, followed by public health officials, reassured the public that there was no reason to swear off their favorite foods, but they also called for an immediate international effort to learn more about the chemical's effects in food.

A year later, people are still eating French fries and bread and breakfast cereals, and researchers have initiated a broad investigation of how acrylamide is formed in foods and whether it is really dangerous to people.

While there are still no firm answers, there is no longer any doubt that the acrylamide issue is a significant one. Millions of dollars are being spent to study it and millions more to find ways to produce chips and crackers and even baby foods with less acrylamide.

"We agree with the World Health Organization that this is a serious concern," said Terry Troxell, who heads the acrylamide action plan of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "We should have a robust plan to get the science to evaluate the risk to humans, and that is now being put into place."

What began as a complete surprise -- nobody had even speculated that acrylamide might turn up in foods -- has turned into classic scientific inquiry, with some of the typical debate that comes with news of potential food dangers.

Some say the FDA should move quickly to enforce limits on acrylamide in food; others largely dismiss the risk of cancer as "theoretical" because it is based on animal tests that might not apply to humans. But the scientific mainstream has settled on the working theory that acrylamide is a significant enough problem that efforts to reduce it in food must begin while the research continues.

The processed-food industry agrees, and many companies are studying acrylamide in their labs. Others have joined a 15-company consortium to study how it might be reduced when food is processed. Last year, the consortium hired toxicologist Michael Pariza of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and he now has a group of about 20 researchers examining questions such as: How is acrylamide formed during cooking? Can lower cooking temperatures lessen the amounts? And could different methods of growing and storing potatoes and other products make them less susceptible to changes that result in acrylamide formation?

"Who the heck wants their products to be impugned?" Pariza said of his corporate sponsors. "If we can lower the levels of acrylamide without changing the taste of products or causing other unwanted reactions, then let's do it. Industry does not see a health risk here now, but they want to be proactive."

But Michael F. Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, believes the FDA and industry are moving too slowly. Given the potential harm, and the fact that some companies can readily cook the same ingredients in ways that produce far fewer acrylamides, the center petitioned the FDA to set ceilings. The petition urges the agency to require that each product have no more acrylamide than the current median level for foods in its class.

"Acrylamide is different from past so-called food scares, and it's generally acknowledged that there's a problem," he said. "Given that, industry and the FDA are moving too slowly and want to do everything through a voluntary approach rather than enacting regulation. I think this is too risky."

A risk analysis expert working with the center, Dale Hattis of Clark University in Massachusetts, has estimated that acrylamides cause 1,000 additional cancers each year in the United States.

The white, odorless, flake-like crystal is known to cause cancer in rats at high dosages and is suspected to be a human carcinogen as well. Because it would be unethical to deliberately test acrylamide on humans, researchers have to base their conclusions on animal tests, as well as on laboratory research of how acrylamide and its offshoots affect DNA in cells. But the animal tests have come under attack as potentially alarmist because the animals are fed dosages far higher than humans would ever eat.

Nonetheless, there is a long regulatory history with acrylamide, which has been used for years in water treatment. Because of the cancer concern, federal regulators now require it to be virtually eliminated from drinking water before it reaches consumers. The levels found in food last year by Swedish researchers, later confirmed by the FDA and many other health agencies, are much higher than those allowed in drinking water.

The intense focus on acrylamide has begun to pay off. Researchers have found, for instance, that acrylamide is formed by a reaction at high temperatures between the compound asparagine (an amino acid commonly found in asparagus, where it has no harmful effect, as well as in potatoes and breads) and certain sugars in starchy foods. In the body, the compound is metabolized into glycinamide, which is the potentially carcinogenic agent.

On the level of molecular science, researchers at the City of Hope Medical Center outside Los Angeles recently found that when glycinamide attaches to DNA in a cell culture, it can cause mutations. Their study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, concluded that the affected DNA often does not replicate properly and can lead to the creation of cancerous tumors.

A very different kind of science is being used to assess how much acrylamide Americans actually consume. Mathematical models are being developed to calculate average acrylamide consumption in a normal diet, as well as in populations that eat large amounts of foods with the highest levels. So far, the researchers have concluded that there is no single food that accounts for the bulk of exposure -- because foods with higher levels are not eaten as widely as some with more moderate levels. Researchers currently suspect that it is the total amount eaten, rather than the high "dosages" from some foods, that determines the overall risk from acrylamide.

Troxell of the FDA said his agency hopes to have more conclusive information about acrylamide by late 2004 or early 2005, although some long-term, gold-standard testing in animals won't be finished until several years after that.

The FDA's goal, he said, is eventually to make firm recommendations to the public and industry. But with the research just picking up speed, he added, it is still too early to say how much danger, if any, acrylamide poses to humans, and has been posing for centuries.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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Starches containing carcinogen research blitz { July 14 2003 }

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