California: Potatoes now dangerous

How nutty can you get?

Proposition 65 deserves to be renamed "the law of mythological food fears." It's the California act of 1986 which "requires businesses to provide clear and reasonable warning if their products expose any individual to a chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity." Couched by many as the "right to know law," it has increased the number of carcinogens and reproductive toxicants subject to government regulations -- with resultant warning labels on everything -- to 367 and 179, respectively. But it's done so at the expense of regulatory relevance and sound science. Instead, it's become the vehicle used by activists to terrify us about our food -- namely "unnatural" or processed "junk" food -- by not giving consumers the full story.

This has been exemplified in California attorney general Bill Lockyer's recent lawsuit against nine manufacturers of potato chips and french fries because of the presence of the chemical, acrylamide. "All consumers should have the information we need to make informed decisions about the food we eat," said Lockyer. "Proposition 65 requires companies to tell us when we're exposed to potentially dangerous toxins in our food; the law benefits us all."

Of course, we all have the right to know what we're eating. We also have the right to balanced, sensible information based on scientific facts.

Traces of acrylamide were first detected in foods three years ago by researchers at the Swedish National Food Administration and Stockholm University. But acrylamide is not a new or growing food contaminant due to modern cooking techniques, as was recently claimed by Alise Cappel, with the Environmental Law Foundation, the California environmental group which has led the use of lawsuits against violators of Proposition 65. Researchers at the Second Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Acrylamide Workshop held in Chicago in April 2004 stated that acrylamide is formed naturally during the Maillard browning reaction, a series of reactions between proteins and carbohydrates during cooking which give golden brown, crispy crusts on breads, baked goods and fried foods, and those rich aromas and flavors to roasted foods. According to Harvard University anthropologist, Richard Wrangham, humans have been cooking for nearly two million years and it's been essential for man's survival as it makes meats and starches softer and digestible, not to mention tastier. In other words, humans have been consuming acrylamide, and the thousands of other Maillard molecules identified thus far, since the age of hunters and gatherers.

While acrylamide increases with high temperature cooking and canning, it also forms in uncooked foods and at room temperature during storage. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Total Diet Study survey has found acrylamide in forty percent of the foods we eat, with significant variations even among samples of the same foods. Clearly, labeling every food containing acrylamide would be nonsensical. The highest concentrations found thus far are in black olives, graham crackers, smoked almonds, cocoa powder, coffee, onion soup, chips, wholegrain cereals and breads, stoneground sesame and rye crackers, sweet potatoes, peanut butter, baked goods, mixed vegetables, chili, sunflower seeds and even prune juice -- all foods that can be part of a healthful diet. In fact, Barbara J. Petersen, a former FDA principal investigator and World Health Organization advisor, reported at the American Chemical Society symposium, March 28, 2004 in Anaheim, that "virtually all of the foods associated with acrylamide contribute important nutrients (calories, vitamins, minerals, proteins) to the diet." She argued that attempts to "control" acrylamide exposure will result in a negative impact on overall nutrition.

Ignoring these facts, Attorney General Lockyer and the Center for Science in the Public Interest want warning labels only on fries and chips. They cite acrylamide as "another reason to eat less greasy French fries and snack chips." But people eat more bread than fries, and thus are exposed to more acrylamide in breads. Looking at other foods common in most homes, graham crackers, for example, contain about 25% more acrylamide than potato chips and toasted wheat cereal 77% more! Singling out any food is unsound. According to David Acheson, PhD, scientist at the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), there is no food that contributes the majority of exposure. "We are talking about a fairly large spectrum of food, but no single food [is] a primary culprit," he said. "The overall mean acrylamide exposure (in U.S. and international populations) is generally in the range of 0.3 to 0.5 micrograms per kilogram per day."

This brings us to two other absurdities with California's Proposition 65 that defy good science. "Any detectable amount" is considered a "significant chemical exposure," and chemicals are deemed possible human carcinogens based on studies in special cancer-prone rats. But, according to Joseph A. Levitt, director of CFSAN, existing guidelines calling acrylamide a "probable human carcinogen" are based solely on animal studies in which cancer risk was observed in rats fed the "maximum tolerated dose" of acrylamide -- an amount just below the level the rats would be poisoned to death -- at a daily dose for their entire lives starting at 500 micrograms per kilogram of body weight.

Let's translate that. According to current National Health and Nutrition Education Survey (NHANES) data, the average U.S. adult weighs more than 75 kilograms (men and women average 180.7 and 152.3 pounds, respectively), which equates to a lifetime acrylamide daily dose of 37,500 micrograms. A person would have to consume about 195 pounds of french fries, 142 pounds of graham crackers, or 5,350 one-ounce servings (333 pounds) of cheerios every day, for life, in order to approach the lowest level of risk observed in laboratory rats.

But really you could probably eat even more than that, because what Lockyer, ELF and CSPI also aren't disclosing is that there is no evidence that acrylamide actually causes cancer in humans. In fact, for years scientists have been finding a number of Maillard molecules are not only not human carcinogens, but appear to have antioxidant properties. Last year, the National Toxicology Program Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction convened an Expert Panel which reviewed nearly 125 research papers on acrylamide's reproductive and developmental effects on humans. Its report concluded: "Considering the low level of estimated human exposure to acrylamides derived from a variety of sources, the Expert Panel expressed negligible concern for adverse reproductive and developmental effects for exposures in the general population."

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