THINGS WE'D RATHER NOT KNOW
Chicago Tribune: Americans have long accepted that everything fun was likely to be immoral, illegal or fattening. Most reasonable people simply weigh the risks and try not to let fear of getting caught take all the fun out of life.
Now comes word of a new risk so unthinkable it rattles the very foundations of rational decision-making: An international group of eminent scientists, in an emergency meeting convened by the World Health Organization and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, has concluded that french fries, potato chips and even some breakfast cereals may cause cancer.
It seems such foods contain high levels of a substance called acrylamide, which is known to cause cancer in laboratory rats and is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a "probable human carcinogen."
Tastes good, but ....
A number of studies carried out in such health-conscious nations as Sweden, Norway and Switzerland had found worrisome amounts of the chemical in some brands of french fries, potato chips, breakfast cereal and even some types of bread. Their findings were confirmed most recently by the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- the group that has warned us of the dangers of eating Chinese food, movie popcorn and almost everything else that tastes good. Among other culprits, the center found acrylamide in Cheerios, Pringles and McDonald's french fries.
Acrylamide seems to be produced when starchy foods are fried or baked, especially at high temperatures -- browner, crispier french fries seem to be worse than pale, soggy ones -- but no one knows for sure.
The WHO scientists have not issued specific guidelines warning consumers against eating acrylamide-containing foods. Because researchers don't know which brands of which foods are most dangerous (and -- dare we suggest? -- which ones aren't dangerous at all), they have agreed for now that more research needs to be done.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently begun testing cereals, snack chips, french fries and other foods to learn more.
Among the many questions that remain to be answered: How, exactly, is acrylamide formed? What's the role of high temperatures in increasing the level of acrylamide in a given food product? Which processing methods are safer? Does acrylamide really cause cancer in humans? If so, at what levels?
The scientists said such research could take years to complete, but what's the hurry? This kind of ignorance is unadulterated bliss. The food-safety scientists should certainly continue to investigate the potential dangers of acrylamide and its concentrations in different brands of different foods.
But perhaps they should keep their findings to themselves. Because it's not at all clear that life without french fries and potato chips would be worth living.