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I heard that French fries contain a known carcinogen. Should I stop eating them?

Jack Lay, director of the Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of Arkansas, replies:

It is helpful to put this question in proper perspective. Will eating French fries increase the risk of cancer, and if so how much? Foods already contain carcinogens. Perhaps most surprising is that potent carcinogens and toxins occur naturally in foods. Molds growing in food can produce some of the most potent carcinogens known. While molds cannot be completely eliminated they can be substantially reduced. To complicate matters, cooking processes that reduce the risk of disease from microbes can nevertheless increase cancer risks resulting from compounds produced in cooking.

Foods such as peanut butter — made from peanuts that sometimes contain molds — are allowed to have trace levels of potent, naturally occurring carcinogens. Why? Because the risk associated with these levels seems to be very small. The effect of most carcinogens and toxins decreases with dose. While it is debatable if there is such a thing as a “no-effect percentage” level, it is clear that there are levels at which the risks are too small to measure.

The significance of the current risk from acrylamide in French fries is not yet completely understood. There is likely some — probably small — cancer risk associated with other foods, and there are plenty of other health-related reasons to be concerned about eating too many fries. My answer to the question is a simple one. Moderation. Until additional studies are completed it would be hard to say with certainty that these recent findings demonstrate an unacceptable increase in risk, but then I wouldn’t go overboard on eating fried foods of any sort.

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