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Saturday, 12 December 2009

Acrylamide (Ακρυλαμίδιο)

Don't photographs like this one freak you out?

Thanks to Mariza for sending it to me.

Surely not good for business, is it? But in this case (unlike most other complaints against McDonalds and other fast food restaurants), it isn't something McDonalds does that is causing toxicity in the food they are serving you - it's something you do even in your own home. So you shouldn't feel that you can't eat McDonalds food for this reason. Just when you thought that you were eating healthy food, making the change from conventional to organic produce, buying, cooking and/or eating more fresh produce, you will now start to wonder what you're doing at home that might be poisoning your food.

In 2002, a group of Swedish scientists reported that they had found evidence of the chemical acrylamide in various fried and oven-baked foods. Acrylamide in high doses causes cancer in experimental animals. It forms in certain foods like vegetables, bread and baked goods, while they are being cooked, and it is not something new, nor can it be ascribed to the modern world: it's been produced for years and years, ever since Prometheus gave the world fire. One could say that Prometheus is to blame for acrylamide formation in our food: if he hadn't stolen this precious tool from the gods and spread it around in the mortal world, we'd still be eating our food raw - but we probably wouldn't have any fear of acrylamide residues in our food.

The ability to cook our food allowed us to develop our taste buds. Cooked food usually has a more superior taste to it than raw food, without a doubt. The slightly charred smoky taste of a grilled pepper, the sweet aroma of a fresh batch of cookies, the hard crust of a freshly baked loaf of bread; such foods look so innocent, yet they are the main culprits of acrylamide content in food. Yet, these are common foods in the daily diet of most people, using very common cooking methods. Ironically, it is not the hardcore carnivores among us that need worry about acrylamide content in their food, because acrylamide rarely forms in meat and dairy products.

Acrylamide formation in food is a tricky issue. It forms in most things we cook at high temperatures, even toast and french fries (hence the warning McDonalds posted in the photograph). But very little scares human beings these days, not even health warnings. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did not stop us from travelling for pleasure. Neither did the outbreak of swine flu. People continue to smoke, despite bans being introduced in public spaces and the high prices of tobacco products. So it's highly unlikely that reading about acrylamide formation in cooked food is going to stop us from eating golden french fries, crispy biscuits, melted cheese on toasted bread and all those delicious vegetables we like to barbecue as a side dish to our meat.

We can't stop eating in the fashion that we have gotten used to for the last many thousands of years, and neither are we being asked to. As acrylamide formation is a rather new idea (having been born this millenium), levels of acceptable acrylamide content in food are still being formulated. Lists of information are available on the acrylamide content of packaged mass-produced foods, and some basic advice is offered for reducing acrylamide content in food.

The acrylamide problem has added another dimension to the topic of food safety: GMO, conventional farming, organic produce, local products, and now acrylamide content. Probably the best thing we can do is not to allow our food to burn or form an unnecessarily dark crust, and to keep away from too many fried foods, which we knew about already, from cholesterol warnings and other negative effects of eating fried food.

The subject of food safety will always be a constant worry in a world which needs to develop faster propagation methods to obtain greater quantities of food, sadly, at the cost of food quality.

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