The hygiene mythbuster

06 February 2017

This issue, Cleaning Matters columnist Seán Derrig delves deeper into the recent health scare over burnt toast

Regular readers may remember my rant about the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) decision to increase funding for the National Food Crime Unit while at the same time cutting food hygiene inspections. A more cynical person might suggest hygiene inspectors’ unglamorous – but vital – work attracts fewer headlines than a crime unit charged with keeping Shergar out of your shepherd’s pie, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

But apparently we need concern ourselves no longer about the rising tide of foodborne illnesses: the FSA has something far more deadly in its sights. Toast. And not just any old toast: if you prefer yours well done rather than anaemic your days are numbered. Ditto crispy roast spuds.

Why this Toast Apartheid? When food browns during cooking, many complex reactions take place and among the flavour molecules produced is acrylamide. Acrylamide has industrial uses too and yes, workplace overexposure has toxic effects.

But everything is toxic – even water – depending on the dose. Any toxicologist will tell you ‘the dose makes the poison’. Many substances that are beneficial or therapeutic at one level are toxic at another. Most vitamins have overdose syndromes. Iron overdose is the leading cause of fatal poisoning in the under-fives.

So, what’s the FSA got against toast? A recent report from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) suggested a higher risk of cancer in rodents exposed to acrylamide. But the dose equates to eating 300 slices of burnt toast every day. This also assumes acrylamide has the same effect on us as mice – which is a whopping great assumption with zero evidence to support it.

In fact EFSA says “dietary exposure to acrylamides are not of concern” and no research has “demonstrated acrylamide to be a human carcinogen”.

This reminds me of another recent scare showing processed meats such as bacon increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18% - if you eat two ounces a day for the rest of your life.

18% is a big number but a misleading one. The lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer is about 4% so an 18% increase raises that to 5%. And eat that much bacon and heart disease will kill you long before the bowel cancer does.

Were the FSA serious about cancer they’d be targeting the 20,000 obesity-related cancer deaths every year. But never let pesky facts stop a good headline.

Me? I’m off for a bacon sandwich. Toasted, naturally.

Seán Derrig is scientific director at Chemex International. He will be presenting a seminar at Cleaning Scotland on 4th May at SEC, Glasgow. For more information see page 51.