Experts have said they are concerned that high levels of a substance called acrylamide in high-carbohydrate food such as French fries and potato chips might cause cancer in humans. The experts discussed research into the substance at a three-day meeting in Geneva sponsored by the World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Scientists from Europe, North America and Japan said more study is needed to determine the extent of the risk caused by acrylamide, and how to reduce it.
Much remains to be learned, but the head of the World Health Organization's food safety program, Jorgen Schlundt, said the scientists agree the potential dangers posed by the substance are serious.
"It has come out of this expert consultation that acrylamide is of high concern because it can cause cancer in animals and it is probable that it causes cancer in human beings," Mr. Schlundt said.
The three-day meeting was called after a study by Sweden's National Food Administration found high levels of acrylamide in some common foods, such as certain brands of French fries, potato chips, breakfast cereals, and bread. The findings were supported by similar research in Norway, Britain, Switzerland, and the United States.
The experts say more research is needed on a wide range of food products before they can advise consumers on the types of food to avoid. In the meantime, they say people should eat a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and limit fatty foods.
Dr. Schlundt has noted cancer does not occur suddenly. It takes a long time to develop. "So you shouldn't have this picture if I eat once something that has acrylamide that I could get cancer tomorrow. Therefore, this scare question, you know, should we be scared? I think we should be encouraged by science coming up with some of the information about some of the cancers we get about food," he said.
Dieter Arnold is from Germany's Federal Institute of Health Protection for Consumers. He said research needs to be done to be able to reduce the levels of acrylamide in food.
"Industry, for example, should investigate their processing processes in order to determine what are the temperature parameters, which could decrease levels of acrylamide in the final product. We also have to investigate what kind of advice can we give to private households with respect to processing of foods. But, at the moment, we have no idea. We are just at the beginning of this research," Mr. Arnold said.
The experts said they do not believe food only in Europe and North America contains acrylamide. They said they plan to widen their investigation to examine foods in all parts of the world.