Chips have had their day

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2009, 12:00am

French fries and potato chips do more than just clog up our arteries and expand our waistlines. These deep-fried carbohydrate-rich foods contain high levels of a toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemical called acrylamide.

Concern over the health risks of acrylamide prompted the government's Centre for Food Safety to team up with the Consumer Council to runs tests on the levels of this chemical in a wide variety of foods in 2003.

The results found that carb-rich foods that were thinner and crispier in texture tended to have higher levels of acrylamide. French fries, potato crisps (chips) and biscuits were the worst offenders. Foods based on wheat, rice or soy generally contained lower levels of the chemical.

What is acrylamide?

Acrylamide is a chemical that is produced naturally in foods as a result of high-temperature cooking such as frying, deep frying, grilling, roasting, and baking. It is found in a wide variety of staples like bread, potatoes, biscuits and coffee. It's not typically found in raw plant-based foods, or foods that have been steamed or boiled.

Acrylamide forms from natural sugars and from the amino acid asparagine. Contrary to popular opinion, this chemical does not come from food packaging or the environment.

What can you do to reduce your intake?

Apart from giving up French fries, crisps, toast and biscuits altogether, you can reduce your exposure by following these tips:

1. If you love potatoes, eat them boiled. Comparing fried, roasted and baked potatoes, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that frying causes the highest acrylamide formation. Roasting causes less, and baking the least. Boiling potatoes, or microwaving them whole with the skin on, does not produce acrylamide.

2. If you must cook chips at home, then soak the raw potato slices in water for 15-30 minutes before frying or roasting. This helps to reduce the formation of acrylamide during cooking.

3. Store your potatoes in a cool, dark place.

Low-temperature storage (minus 8 degrees Celsius) can cause increased formation of acrylamide during cooking.

4. Cook potatoes, or toast bread, at a lower heat and for shorter periods of time. Go for light brown rather than dark (burnt) brown - browner areas tend to contain more acrylamide.

Recent research suggests cooking French fries to a light golden colour, using maximum temperatures of 175?C when deep-frying, and staying below 230?C when baking.

5. Say goodbye to coffee. Roasted coffee beans contain more acrylamide.

Take-home advice: Limit the amount of crisps and French fries you eat, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, choose wholegrains and low-fat products wherever possible.