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I’m about to tell you something difficult. French fries are not good for you — or potatoes chips for that matter. But not in the way that you think.
American’s have had an obsession with French fries since Americans soldiers came back from WWI speaking fondly of the deep-fried delicacy. Thanks to bastions of fast food, like McDonald’s, our fondness developed into a love affair that engulfed a nation now verging on metabolic disaster.
But there’s something else lurking in those salty, tasty fries and crispy chips that may be even more concerning… a side of acrylamide — an unappetizing chemical typically found in an industrial environment.
And here’s the thing: The international Agency for Research on Cancer considers acrylamide a “probable human carcinogen.”
Scientists first began paying attention to the unwanted chemical’s presence in food more than a decade ago. You might think this industrial chemical gets into your food through pollution or contaminated ground water. But no, it’s there because of the presence of a naturally occurring amino acid called asparagine found in the raw potato.
The amino acid is found in many animal and plant food sources, and it’s a known precursor of acrylamide. When cooked at high temperatures, sugars react with amino acids, including asparagine, in a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction. This reaction is what gives fried potatoes their prized flavor and golden color, but it is also what produces acrylamide.
Trace amounts of acrylamide are present in many foods cooked at temperatures higher than 248 degrees Fahrenheit. But relatively high levels are found in fried potatoes, including French fries and potato chips.
Fortunately, researchers have discovered that different potato breeds produce different levels of acrylamide when cooked at high temperatures. They did this by planting 140 breeds in five potato-growing regions across the U.S. After being harvested and stored in conditions similar to commercial potatoes, the potatoes were tested for levels of asparagine, and how much acrylamide the potatoes formed.
Two promising varieties that produced lower amounts of acrylamide were Payette Russet and Easton, both of which have been released for commercial use.
Even though you should always tread lightly in regards to fried foods and processed snacks like potato chips, at least there is a future where you can imbibe occasionally without the “probable” cancer risk.