Think back to last year when acrylamide made its debut as a cancer scare, under the auspices of Swedish scientists. It's not hard to recall, since almost every newspaper, radio station, and TV news show reported the study suggesting that our old friend the French fry may be contributing to cancer development in humans. The "probable carcinogen" is found in high-carbohydrate foods that are cooked at high temperatures, including French fries, crackers, and even cereals. The reports started a scare that spread like wildfire and will probably continue for some time.
What's worse, though, is that new research, suggesting that banning French fries is pointless, is not making any headlines at all. In the study, conducted by Dr. Claudio Pelucchi of the Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche in Milan, Italy, the diets of 7,000 cancer patients were examined. The study found no evidence for an interaction between fried and/or baked potato consumption and cancer. While it is quite possible that a southern-European diet differs from an American diet in its effects on cancer, this study is still newsworthy considering the publicity acrylamide received last year.
Another study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute recently found that while acrylamide may interfere with the DNA replication process, possibly leading to mutations and tumor growth, this information cannot be applied to humans or even to grown animals since it was produced in test tube studies. Two researchers from Sweden pointed out, in an accompanying editorial, that the average concentration of acrylamide in human blood is five times lower than the lowest concentration used in the study. Test tube studies often use very high levels of substances, resulting in data that are not entirely applicable to living humans. The scientists also said that the risk from dietary acrylamide is small and that they would not recommend changing dietary guidelines.
Dr. Claudio Pelucchi's study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, is of great importance to those who value responsible research. The initial study last year grabbed headlines because it was a new scare, something else for Americans to be concerned about, which journalists and newscasters love. Less frightening follow-up studies like this one don't usually garner as much attention. The study was reported over a holiday weekend, this past July 4, and was not mentioned again in any articles during the next week.
An argument can presumably be made that since the study was done in Italy, its ramifications for Americans were not immediately recognized, and so it did not make it to our media. Yet the initial study last year was done in Sweden and was widely reported. As long as there is conflicting research regarding acrylamide, consumers should have access to all research in order to make informed decisions.
Public health officials and media alike prefer to err on the side of sounding the alarm when faced with ambiguous risks, but this "precautionary principle" does more to protect them ensuring that they get attention and that they can't be accused of complacency in the face of danger than to protect a vulnerable and bewildered public. What the public truly needs is a responsible, balanced view of scientific research. If the public health community continues to let out cries that are not rooted in scientific principles, there may come a day when a real crisis arises and they find that no one is listening.