Published June 28, 2002
The food police at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have jumped on the recent health scare involving French fries and potato chips. Not surprisingly, its new effort at food terrorism is self-debunking.
Swedish "scientists" surprised us in April with their finding that baking and frying high-carbohydrate foods — like bread and potatoes — forms in the foods "high" levels of acrylamide, a substance that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency labels as a "probable carcinogen."
Based on this announcement the World Health Organization held an "urgent expert consultation" this week on the Swedish findings.
Apparently to help the WHO press the panic button, CSPI released a June 25 report claiming "Popular American brands of snack chips and French fries contain disturbingly high levels of acrylamide, according to new laboratory tests commissioned by CSPI."
Some of CSPI’s results include: a large order of McDonald’s French fries contained 600 times more acrylamide than the EPA allows in a glass of drinking water; a one-ounce serving of Pringle’s Potato Crisps contained 208 times more acrylamide than allowed; and one ounce of Honey Nut Cheerios contained 50 times more acrylamide than allowed.
Sounds scary — but it’s not!
In the first place, it’s far from clear that acrylamide is at all a cancer-causing substance. Some scientists seem to have induced cancer in laboratory rats by feeding them the "maximum tolerated dose" of acrylamide — an amount just below the level the rats would be poisoned from simply eating the acrylamide.
The rats used in such experiments are bred to be genetically disposed to cancer. They are so susceptible to cancer that merely changing the amount of food they consume affects their cancer risk.
In the study used by the EPA as the basis for its limit on acrylamide in drinking water, the lowest lifetime daily dose at which the rats had a significant increase in cancer risk was 500 micrograms (millionths of a gram) per kilogram of bodyweight.
For a 154-pound human, this equates to a lifetime daily dose of 35,000 micrograms.
What does this mean for CSPI’s results?
I hope you like McDonald’s French fries because you’d have to eat 486 large servings — weighing out at 182 pounds — every day for life to get the same amount of acrylamide as the EPA’s lab rats. If you prefer low-fat foods, how about 5,000 one-ounce servings — weighing out at 312 pounds — of Honey Nut Cheerios per day for life?
You could actually probably eat even more French fries and Cheerios because there’s no evidence that acrylamide causes cancer in humans! Even the EPA describes the evidence concerning acrylamide and human cancer risk as "inadequate."
Nevertheless, CSPI got Clark University professor Dale Hattis to say, "I estimate that acrylamide causes several thousand cancers per year in Americans."
Hattis must be referring to those who survive scarfing down all that food.
Since I doubt that CSPI chief Michael Jacobson really believes that acrylamide is any sort of actual threat, what’s CSPI’s angle in all this foolishness?
CSPI stated in its press release that the Food and Drug Administration "should be advising consumers to cut back on the most contaminated and least nutritious foods while more testing is done across the food supply."
The "most contaminated and least nutritious foods" just happen to be the same foods — fast food French fries, for example — that CSPI routinely attacks as being unhealthy. Acrylamide hysteria is nothing more than a convenient, if not cynical, tactic of CSPI to advance its anti-fun food agenda.
Of course the instigating and crowning buffoonery to the acrylamide controversy is the WHO’s "urgent" meeting, which ended with the WHO panel calling acrylamide a "major concern." Although further study was recommended (predictably), no warning to consumers was issued — yet.
Instead the WHO panel restated standard nutritional guidelines calling for balanced diets with plenty of fruit and vegetables and limited amounts of fatty or fried food — CSPI will no doubt use that recommendation to badger the FDA .
But during the three days of the WHO meeting, more than 16,000 third-world children died from food and water contaminated with bacteria — that’s according to the WHO’s own estimates. What’s the WHO doing to prevent these largely avoidable deaths?
It’s perpetuating another activist-friendly, but bogus food scare.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).