Eating burnt potatoes may increase your risk of cancer

3 things you need to know about the carcinogen acrylamide, found in starch-heavy foods.

Scientific and medical communities are always striving to discover more about that enigmatic killer: Cancer. Often, that means scrutinizing the foods we regularly put into our bodies, in an attempt to find preventatives, correlations, or causes for the disease. (Cheese, for example, may have cancer-preventing properties.)

But with new discoveries happening all the time, it can be hard for the average person to keep up with what to keep in our kitchens, and what to avoid. And the hot-potato issue of the day? You guessed it: the burnt potato.

According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK, eating crispy, burnt potatoes may be linked to cancer risk because of a chemical called acrylamide. Dr. Shikha Jain, doctor of medical oncology at Northwestern Hospital, says that even though the evidence is inconclusive, acrylamide is still something to watch out for: “The WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN have stated that the level of acrylamide in certain foods may pose a major concern and more research is needed to determine what type and how much of a risk it poses,” she says.

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So, yes, you can probably take this early research with a grain of salt for now, but if you often cook or eat crispy or burnt potatoes, you may want to learn a bit more about acrylamide before you turn the heat up on your next potato dish:

1. What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide a carcinogenic chemical found in obviously toxic substances like plastics and tobacco smoke but also in everyday foods like coffee, cookies, and, yes, roasted potatoes. It forms when a substance is cooked at high temperatures, such as if it’s fried or roasted. Health experts have been studying acrylamide since the early 2000s and the National Toxicology Program has even said that acrylamide is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” so consumers should be on the watch for new developments in this ongoing research.

2. What other foods is acrylamide found in?

Acrylamide is mostly found in starchy foods, such as potatoes and other root vegetables, when they’re cooked at high temperatures. So it’s not just the spuds you cook at home, but they’re a main source. Some health experts also say that French fries and potato chips may not be the best for your health either. Any blackened foods, such as burnt toast, are probably best avoided as well. Dr. Jain weighed in on this saying, “The levels in certain foods varies depending on manufacturer, the way the food is prepared and the amount of time the food is cooked.” So it’s always a little trickier to know how much acrylamide is hiding in store-bought or restaurant foods. Cooking at home helps you better control the acrylamide in your food.

3. What can you do in the kitchen to reduce your acrylamide intake?

When it comes to potatoes, there are some hard and fast rules to reducing your acrylamide intake. Eating boiled, steamed, or mashed potatoes is the way to go if you want to avoid acrylamide altogether. The FSA also advises that you don’t leave your raw potatoes in the fridge, especially if you plan to cook them. Refrigerating raw potatoes allows for the formation of free sugars, which will lead to the production of more acrylamide when you eventually do cook them. If you do plan to fry your potatoes make sure you follow the golden rule of experts in the field: Only cook your food until it is golden brown. It’s also a good idea to chop your spuds into smaller chunks so there’s less surface area for the potato to burn.

MORE TO READ: The healthy, nutritionist-approved way to eat carbs

Dr. Jain’s advice is to just keep striving for a healthy, balanced diet: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat foods are what your body really needs.

Grace Cooper
Grace Cooper

A student at the University of Pittsburgh, Grace Cooper is studying Nonfiction Writing and Psychology. A writer for Verily and other publications, she dreams of moving to New York City to further pursue a career in journalism.

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