Why we should be browned off by the toast panic
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued advice today that people should avoid browning starchy foods too much to avoid the risk of cancer. The FSA says that over-browning toast or roast potatoes could produce a chemical, acrylamide, that has been linked with cancer in testing on rodents. The same problems could also apply to crisps, coffee and cakes, among other things.
But the move was called into question by Cancer Research UK, which argues that the link between acrylamide and cancer is not yet proven. Even if such a link could be demonstrated, the amount of acrylamide required to produce cancer would be far higher than typical human exposure, according to Professor David Spiegelhalter, an expert in risk.
It’s also worth noting that we are bombarded with carcinogens throughout our lives from all sorts of sources. Even the fruit and vegetables we consume – whether raw or cooked – contain trace quantities of chemicals that, in much larger doses, could potentially cause cancer. Thankfully, our bodies are supremely well adapted to deal with any damage to our DNA caused by exposure to such chemicals. The FSA’s advice is almost certainly headline-grabbing nonsense.
Over on social media, the reaction was less polite, amounting to ‘Screw you, I’ll eat my toast any way I like’. People instinctively know that there is some small degree of risk to pretty much any human activity. We would prefer to judge such risks for ourselves and are happy to put short-term pleasure ahead of the risk of health problems. That’s a far healthier response to risk than, as the FSA would suggest, adapting our every choice to the possibility of harm. If we spent our lives following health advice to the letter, we would be resigned to a miserable existence.
But we shouldn’t just assert that moral choice when it comes to patently bonkers ideas like turning down the toaster to avoid cancer. We should also assert that right when it comes to all the well-established ‘bad habits’, like smoking and drinking, too. Whenever government agencies and health ‘experts’ (all too often, moralists dressed up in lab coats) try to stick their noses into our lives, we should be giving them a roasting.
Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.