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Dublin: 11 °C Sunday 19 May, 2019
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Debunking food scares: 'What’s this I had heard about toast causing cancer?'

Up to one third of the most common cancers are preventable by making improvements to our diet. But there’s no need to ban toast just yet, writes Louise Reynolds.

Louise Reynolds

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER nutrition story making the news headlines – so far, so normal. But as my slice of wholegrain toast popped up out of the toaster this morning I found myself pondering the colour and just how toasted it really was.

Not too pale and soft but maybe too brown and crunchy? And then I thought, another food scare on a Monday morning.

As a dietitian I can usually embrace or dismiss these news headlines pretty quickly or at least know where to go to read a little more and find out what’s actually going on. So when I saw this latest report casting doubt on our popular breakfast food, I decided to take a closer look.

All about acrylamide

The issue is a compound called acrylamide, produced when starchy foods are cooked or baked to a brown colour. This chemical reaction is called the “maillard reaction” and occurs when toasting or browning certain foods.

The main food groups affected are fried potato products, such as chips, crisps, roast potatoes and other roasted root vegetables, bread, biscuits and crackers. Coffee also contains acrylamide. The darker the toasting or browning, the more acrylamide is produced.

What the experts say

This week, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued a report that said acrylamide has been found, in animal studies, to increase the risk of cancer. However, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland updated their advice this week in response to the UK report.

They said that their research had found that while the intake of acrylamide in Ireland was low, as in other EU member states, they are working with the commission and other member states to set controls for acrylamide in legislation.

The agency said people could reduce the amount of acrylamide in their diets by choosing cooking methods such as boiling or steaming instead of frying or roasting. In addition, you can reduce your dietary intake of acrylamide by ensuring you have a balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Cancer Research UK have also spoken out this week to highlight that there is no need to panic if you have enjoyed a slice of well done toast or a crispy, well browned roast potato with your Sunday dinner this week.

The supporting studies

Studies in animals have shown that acrylamide has the potential to damage the DNA inside cells. And because of this it has been linked to cancer. But looking at studies in humans, they go on to say that there isn’t a clear and consistent link between acrylamide and increased risk of cancer.

They highlight that the report gives yet another good reason to consider eating a well balanced diet for overall good health and weight management. And the key here is balance – there’s no need to cut these foods out entirely, just cut down if you eat them a lot.

In fact, some of the largest sources of acrylamide – crisps, chips, cakes and biscuits – are foods that you should avoid eating every day anyway, as they are high in calories and low in beneficial nutrients and fibre.

Preventing cancer?

But when it comes to preventing cancer there are other things we can all do to reduce our risk. Up to one third of the most common cancers are preventable by making improvements to diet, exercise and body weight.

In fact, each diet modification can lead to a 5% reduction in cancer risk – so in fact, all the small changes can add up to make a big difference to your overall risk of developing certain cancers.

At the launch of their “My Small Change” campaign this week, Dr Aoife Ryan, INDI Dietitian, UCC Lecturer and Principal Investigator with Breakthrough Cancer, explained that:

Our risk of developing cancer depends on a combination of our genes, our environment and aspects of our lifestyle. We have control over many of these factors and, in some instances, can directly alter our chances of developing cancer. Cancer is caused by damage to our DNA, the chemical instructions that tell our cells what to do. Things in our environment, such as our lifestyle, can damage our DNA.

So what can we do to reduce our risk?

The eight key recommendations from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) are:

  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
  3. Limit consumption of high calorie foods and avoid sugary drinks.
  4. Eat more grains, vegetables, fruit and beans.
  5. Limit consumption of red meats and avoid processed meats.
  6. Limit alcohol consumption.
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt.
  8. For cancer prevention, don’t rely on supplements.

And of course we could add to this – don’t smoke and if you do smoke, quit. But I don’t think we have to cross toast off the breakfast menu just yet.

Louise Reynolds is a CORU Registered Dietitian and works with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.

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Louise Reynolds

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