By Lizzie Harrett
How do you like your toast? Slathered in jam, covered in thick butter like the wedges they hand out in Metros at 2am, or so burnt it tastes like an open fire smells? If it’s the former, then the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have got some sad news for you. Alongside eating well-done roast potatoes, the FSA have asked you to stop leaving your bread in the toaster for too long, as burnt starchy foods produce acrylamide which is a chemical associated with cancer. Their “Go for Gold” campaign urges you to aim for a golden or lighter colour when cooking starchy foods, to reduce the risk of consuming a carcinogen.
However, you must not panic and surrender your crispy roasties, for this is a tragic case of improper science reporting and misinformation. What the FSA press release fails to mention is that acrylamide has not been proven to be cancer-causing in humans. A 2012 study found that rodents exposed to high levels of acrylamide develop cancer, but the risks with humans are totally unproven. “Even adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide would need to consume 160 times as much to reach a level that might cause increased tumours in mice,” said Professor David Spiegelhalter of Cancer Research. That’s a lot of potatoes.
Despite being totally scaremongering and based on science that hasn’t even been proven, this press release was picked up on by numerous publications including the BBC, WalesOnline and the Daily Mail. Fear and controversy unfortunately sells, with curious individuals including myself clicking on the article links and generating advertising revenue for the news sites.
Of course, telling individuals that seemingly harmless things give you cancer is not a new phenomenon. The Daily Mail is infamous for this, with their past reporting claiming that broccoli, cats, Facebook and hairdryers cause cancer, amongst many other totally random objects. This is incredibly dangerous, because it not only results in panic but contributes to a mistrust of science and information, due to the constant bombardment of incorrect or tenuously linked research. It is perhaps unsurprisingly that sociologist Gordon Gauchat found that despite increasing education levels, the public’s trust in the scientific community has been decreasing.
Sometimes scientific research can be misinterpreted by news sites, with a story once claiming that household chores increased the risk of a heart attack, when the actual research paper the news was based on claimed nothing of the sort. However, this was a press release the FSA should never have sent out. The click bait news sites got drawn to it like a bee drawn to honey spread over a slightly overdone piece of toast. As a government agency, the FSA should know better and should at the very least state the facts about humans and acrylamide in their press releases, as they will of course get picked up by publications like the Daily Mail.
While it hasn’t been proven in humans, it hasn’t been completely unproven. So while I’m not suggesting that you eat 10 pieces of blackened toast for breakfast every morning, this press release gives no cause for panic. If in future you see a controversial health news story, I recommend you head over to NHS Behind the Headlines webpage, who give fantastic unbiased and evidence of health stories that make the news.