The concern comes from a recent large study from the Netherlands, which tracked 120,822 people (a "cohort") since September 1986, and noted 363 patients with myeloma of whom 323 were evaluable for assessment of intake of a chemical called acrylamide, which is present in baked goods, such as cookies, and also French fries, potato chips, and coffee, plus in this study from the Netherlands, Dutch spiced cake (which is high in acrylamide). If you are already thinking about how much acrylamide is in your diet, I refer you to a nutrition-wise blog from the Mayo Clinic which details how to limit acrylamide in your diet. There was a significant correlation between the amount of acrylamide in the diet and the likelihood of developing myeloma for all men, as well as men who had never smoked. Smoking is a source of acrylamide and therefore, a potential so-called "confounding factor." So the correlation in non-smoking men is especially important.
This is a very large, long-term study from a prestigious group (of epidemiologists) at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Therefore, the results need to be carefully considered. However, it is also the first study with sufficient numbers to evaluate acrylamide intake in this fashion. The reason to go to such lengths to investigate acrylamide is that it is known to cause cancer. It is a class 2A carcinogen (IARC, Lyons France), which means that it definitely causes cancer in animals and, since the chemical breakdown is the same for people, most probably also in humans.
This disturbing finding needs further confirmation and investigation, but raises several important issues, the most pressing of which is:
Can what we eat or drink cause cancer?
We are used to the idea that working in a factory with toxic chemicals or being exposed to toxic environmental chemicals can be dangerous. Using the accepted criteria of esteemed British epidemiologist Sir Bradford Hill, one can systematically assess if a particular chemical or process can be plausibly linked to a particular cancer. As pointed out in an article written by a myeloma patient, Hardy Jones, one must be ever vigilant about toxic exposures in the environment.
But, the potential for toxic chemicals in what we eat or drink is something new in our awareness and part of a mostly silent revolution over the past several decades. In a new book, "White Bread," Aaron Bobrow-Strain highlights the complex scientific as well as socioeconomic issues with highly processed foods. Supermarket white bread contains a number of chemicals including diammonium phosphate, which is used as a nutrient for yeast, but is also a flame retardant and fertilizer. A few other examples include the flavoring chemicals brought to attention in "Fast Food Nation"-- especially the amazing chemical that provides the special taste of McDonald's French fries. Another new book, "Tomatoland," which discusses the development of the "perfect tomato," also includes sobering examples of toxic exposure. And of course, there is the caramel flavoring in diet soft drinks linked to 4-methylimidazole (4-MI) and the BPA (bisphenol A) from plastic bottles.
So, the reality is that we need to be very aware of chemicals in food and drinks. Do they cause cancer? Does acrylamide in cookies or other products cause myeloma? This remains to be proven. But this is definitely a wakeup call. Watch what you eat. Check the labels. Fresh, local, and organic are preferred over processed, shipped, and farmed.
Stay tuned as I explore related issues in coming months. In the meantime here are some blogs I wrote about food and health issues before: