Acrylamide: Taking the Fun Out of French Fries

How has the U.S. news media covered the potential health risks of the carcinogen acrylamide?

April 1, 2004

How has the U.S. news media covered the potential health risks of the carcinogen acrylamide?

If worries about obesity don't stop most people from eating French fries, acrylamide might. This carcinogen first made it into the news in 1976. And in 2002, scientists conclusively linked acrylamide to fries and other starches. Our Globalist Factsheet explores how the U.S. media bungled this key health issue.

What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is classified as a colorless, crystalline solid and a medium-hazard probable human carcinogen.
(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

How much acrylamide is there in a serving of French fries?

French fries served in most U.S. fast food restaurants contain about 100 times the one microgram per liter maximum permitted in drinking water by the World Health Organization.
(BBC)

Are there other foods that contain potentially hazardous levels of acrylamide?

Staple foods — including bread, chips and crisps — may contain high levels of the substance, which is believed to cause cancer.
(Sweden's National Food Administration)

What causes these products to incorporate such a substance?

The researchers found that acrylamide was formed when carbohydrate-rich foods — such as potatoes, rice or cereals — were heated.
(Sweden's National Food Administration)

When was the first time major U.S. newspapers reported on the dangers of acrylamide?

The Washington Post was among the first newspapers to report on the findings of Swedish scientists on April 25, 2002. The article was 464 words long — and buried on page 13 of the newspaper.
(The Globalist)

Who else picked up the story?

Two days later, on April 27, 2002, the New York Times ran an article about the study. The piece, on page A10, was 116 words long.
(The Globalist)

Were the findings of Swedish scientists confirmed by others?

In June 2002, officials from Norway, Switzerland and Britain confirmed that high levels of the carcinogen are found in everyday foods — French fries, potato chips, some breakfast cereals and breads.
(Associated Press)

Did any U.S. authorities confirm the findings?

On December 5, 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that it has found high levels of the potentially cancer-causing substance acrylamide in a large range of U.S. products, mostly in fried and baked goods — and particularly in French fries, potato chips and crackers.
(Washington Post)

Did the U.S. media provide extensive coverage of the potential dangers of acrylamide for public health?

Since 1995, when poisoning from acrylamide was connected to food for the first time, 29 articles have been published in four major U.S. newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
(The Globalist)

Did any of the articles about acrylamide appear on the front page of newspapers?

None of the 29 articles published appeared on the front page of a major U.S. newspaper. In the June 12, 2002 and in the September 30, 2002, editions of the Washington Post, page A2 was the closest the topic appeared to the front page of a major U.S. newspaper.
(The Globalist)

Of all the 29 articles, how many words did the longest article contain — and how many times was the word "acrylamide" mentioned?

USA Today published a 1,228 word article on the dangers of acrylamide on October 8, 2002. The word acrylamide was mentioned 17 times in the article.
(The Globalist)

Have there been any changes and/or warnings recently on the consumption of deep-fried foods?

As of October 2003, scientists all over the world have spent millions of dollars on research on acrylamide. The only known fact is that acrylamide is a cancer-causing chemical. The question remains, however, whether the high levels of acrylamide found in carbohydrate-rich foods cause cancer in humans.
(United Press International)

Has there been any additional testing done?

As of September 2003, conclusions have been drawn from testing animals only. But some studies might take several more years to conclude what kind of danger acrylamide poses to humans.
(U.S. Food and Drug Administration)