According to a few internet sources, McDonald’s packaging in California just underwent a makeover – supposedly, every meal is now served in a bag with a dire warning proclaiming that some of the food served at the restaurant may contain the carcinogen acrylamide. This includes potato products, hamburger buns, biscuits and coffee.
Pictures of the warning have been inspiring panic and anger as they make their way across blogs and social networking sites. It’s currently unclear whether the warning label is actually appearing on any packaging in California – although discussion about the label itself dates back to 2009, which seems to indicate it might be a hoax (or, at least, out-of-date).
Though the label is likely fake, it is true that McDonald’s food does contain acrylamide. What many don’t realize is that the FDA has been trying to educate the general public about acrylamide since its discovery in food in 2002. Acrylamide, as noted on the warning label itself, is a naturally-occurring substance which forms when food is browned, burned, or cooked for long periods at high temperatures.
Acrylamide forms most easily on potatoes and other plant-based food items. Potato chips and French fries are the worst offenders, but any charred or browned veggies are likely to have some amount of the chemical present. Coffee beans naturally form acrylamide during the roasting process. So far, some amount of the chemical in a normal diet seems to be unavoidable, and the FDA is recommending a few simple tips to help cut down on the amount of acrylamide in food, including soaking potatoes before frying, and browning potatoes and bread more lightly.
What does acrylamide even do in the body? The truth is, no one’s really sure. In the amounts found in food products, it may not pose a health risk at all. According to the National Cancer Institute, some studies have found that high levels of acrylamide exposure can increase the risk of developing various types of cancer — in rodents. Since humans absorb the chemical differently than rats, it’s unclear how dangerous acrylamide is to humans. Right now, the International Agency for Research on Cancer considers acrylamide to be a “probable human carcinogen.”
In industrial settings, it can definitely be dangerous. Acrylamide is used in coal preparation plants, water treatment facilities and paper production, and has been shown to cause neurological damage in exposed workers. It’s also found in cigarette smoke and may contribute to the development of lung cancer in smokers. However, most of the research that’s been done on dietary exposure to acrylamide has involved treating water with large amounts of the chemical — which doesn’t necessarily translate to the levels that might be found in a bag of potato chips.
The government approach to acrylamide has been fairly conservative. Until further research is completed, the FDA isn’t recommending that anyone cut fried, baked, or roasted veggies out of their diet – they don’t even really seem to be too concerned about reducing your intake. Instead, they encourage Americans to adopt a “healthy eating plan” that includes a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts. They also advise avoiding saturated and trans fats, cholesterol and high amounts of salt and sugar.
While the purported McDonald’s label does note that acrylamide is a natural substance, and refers customers to the FDA website for more information, this does come across as downplaying an alarming message, and is likely to be ignored by those who are determined to believe that McDonald’s is willfully inflicting cancer on consumers. (As well as those who don’t really care about the health impact of the food they’re eating.)
Now, none of this is meant to imply that fast food isn’t horrible for you. The high levels of fat and sodium alone are good reasons to avoid that Big Mac and fries. And more than one person has documented the troubling fact that McDonald’s hamburgers don’t appear to rot or spoil, ever, due to the amount of preservatives crammed into them. But if you’re worried about getting cancer from acrylamide, you’re going to have to avoid roasting, baking, frying, or toasting anything at home – and I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a foodie, a little risk here or there is a price I’m willing to pay.
Photo by: Bee-side(s)