Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman


Beware the cancer lurking within these harmless-looking spuds/iPhoto by Donna

The New York Times recently called my attention to the USDA approval of a new genetically modified potato intended to reduce cancer by eliminating acrylamide. What is acrylamide? Here’s a link with lots of other links. It causes cancer in rats and therefore, maybe, in humans? We don’t know for certain. In one of these links a scientist guessed that 3,000 people a year get cancer from acrylamide, though on what he based his guess is, well, anybody’s guess.

Here’s a headline I’d like to see in The Onion:

Scientist Working to Extinguish Sun in Bold Effort to Eradicate Some Skin Cancers.

And here’s my rant line: We fuck with our food at our own peril.

The Times dutifully quoted people on both sides of the issue.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group, said that the technique used to silence the genes, called RNA interference, was still not well understood. This is a fact. Here are the group’s extended remarks.

On the other hand: Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that deals with nutrition issues, welcomed the approval. “We support clearly trying to reduce consumers’ exposure to acrylamide and if this product helps do that, I think it’s a benefit,” he said. (See acrylamide link, above, from this group. Both parties got back to me immediately yesterday when I wrote to confirm, and I thank them.)

Finally, Andrew Pollack reports in his Times story that “the National Cancer Institute says that scientists do not know with certainty if the levels of the chemical typically found in food are harmful to human health.”

Are GMOs harmful or helpful? The answer is probably yes, but again, we don’t know either way for sure. The Center for Food Safety says the USDA made an unprecedented and irresponsible decision by approving this potato. The Times does not address this or get a statement from the Dept. of Ag.

But my guess is nobody is doing anything to make people more healthy.

My guess is this, and it’s only a guess: News of the discovery of acrylamide in 2002 scared the giant potato grower Simplot, which was the major supplier of potatoes to McDonalds in the 1960s, and remains a huge grower.

Executive #1, “If words starts to spread that fried potatoes cause cancer, we are totally hosed!”

Exec. #2 said, “Let’s build a newer potato so we can tell people OUR fries don’t cause cancer!”

The naysayer in the boardroom said, “It will take too long, then we’ll have to get approval, which will take forever.”

Exec. #1, “Approval is not a problem—we have our lobbies in DC.”

Am I cynical? Yep. Big corporations don’t give a shit about your health. Fine, we know that. Remember, stupid is bad.

What pisses me off is that people are making all kinds of unproven claims based on little or no evidence; again, no one knows anything for sure when it comes to nutrition. They are only biases.

To reiterate a few points:

—Buy whole foods and cook them yourself or have someone in your clan do it.

—Don’t try to cook “healthy,” but rather nutritiously.

—WE are healthy if our FOOD is nutritious.

God, this shit drives me bananas!


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© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


21 Wonderful responses to “Now French Fries
…Cause Cancer!!!”

  • Jules

    I’ve worked with acrylamide on a regular basis in the lab. It’s NOT nice stuff, it’s known to be dangerous, and it’ll definitely shorten your life span if you spill a solution on your pants or inhale the powder. But polymerized, the way it is when potatoes get cooked, it’s harmless. The “danger” is from the trace unpolymerized acrylamide molecules floating around. The real question is how much acrylamide is produced by a potato to begin with, and how much of it gets polymerized when you deep-fry it. We’re told that the amount of free acrylamide is minimal in French fries–whether this is of any comfort to you is something only you can decide. But deep-frying any potato, in any way, will make acrylamide. Chemistry doesn’t care if it’s your cast-iron pan with heirloom tomatoes, or some GMO-monstrosity at McDonald’s. If you deep-fry a potato, the chemical reactions that produce acrylamide will happen.

    And as for GMOs–they’re food. Period. GMOs are not deadly and they will not kill you, at least not at any rate faster than eating seedless grapes (now THAT’s a genetic abomination) or the super-breasted chickens that are bred these days. There’s this irrational fear of GMO’s because “frankentomato” but people forget that we’ve been doing far worse to far more foods for far longer. That tree with 31 types of fruit? Totally GMO-free, but would you want to eat from it? I wish people would stop conflating GMOs with the evils of Monsanto. Monsanto and other Big Ag companies ARE evil, not because of what they want to do to our food, but because of the way they kill the little guy when they go after patent infringement (and that’s a whole other rant, patenting genes). But tell me why someone in the Third World should go blind because a pampered hipster in the First one thinks that they know what’s best.

  • Tags

    As long as they don’t use green potatoes, they don’t need to worry about solanine. These “scientists” should read Jeffrey Steingarten’s “Salad the Silent Killer” from his “The Man Who Ate Everything.” Then they’ll be able to warn people against eating raw vegetables and having to deal with such poisons as Aflatoxins, Alpha amylase inhibitors,
    Anthraquinone, Avidin,
    Cyanogens, Ecdysone, Estragole, Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, Goitrogens, Hemagglutinin, Hydrazine, Juvabiones, Oxalates, Oxalic acid, Phytic acid, Protease inhibitors (biology), Psoralen, Safrole, Serotonin(!?!), or Snakeroot.

  • Kiara

    When will food fearmongering become a crime?! The sad truth is there are a lot of people who simply read headlines and take them as truth. My grandparents, margarine-loving, egg-eschewing darling folks, are among those…

  • Robin

    Years ago, two scientists demonstrated (tongue in cheek, but actually showed) that dimes cause cancer… It was around the time that cyclamates were banned. For those that don’t remember, sucaryl was a zero calorie sweetener that didn’t taste horrible. It was banned in the USA, but is still available elsewhere.

    Turns out obesity is worse….

  • James O.

    “God, this shit drives me bananas!”

    So this pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel sticking through his fly.

    “What’s with the steering wheel?” asks the bartender.

    “Arrrr! It be driving me nuts!” replies the pirate.

    I don’t want to know why there’s shit involved, or why there’s a reference to more than one ‘banana’.

    And no, I don’t need a photo. My imigination needs bleach as it is.

  • JonH

    One day we will have evidence supporting that the metal finish coating on laboratory mice cages causes cancer. Science will be sent back 100 years.

    Thanks for this post Ruhlman.

  • Amy

    …Aaaaaand this is why I love your perspective.

    While we’re at it, let’s breed pigs and cows to produce pork and beef that won’t crisp up & brown for a delicious crust (and flavor!) because the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines cause cancer, too.

    Jeez. I’m a nutritionist and you know what? Sometimes we just need to eat foods that ARE DELICIOUS and make us happy. Sweating the small stuff and stressing out over weird minutia is far worse for health than just eating and *enjoying.*

    I would add to the books you recommended Sally Fallon & Mary Enig’s Nourishing Traditions. Don’t know if you’re familiar with the Weston A. Price Foundation or not, and some of what they do is a little wacky, but one thing they are absolutely adamant about is *real food,* cooked at home and with love as much as possible. Gelatinous stock, healthy animal fats from pastured animals consuming their biologically appropriate diets — and no “politically correct nutrition!” That is the ugly thing that led us down the rabbit holes of egg white omelets, fat-free yogurt, and terrible, paralyzing fear of some of the most nourishing, delicious, and nutritious foods on the planet: liver, butter, fatty pork, and red meat.

    As for the CSPI being “a consumer group that deals with nutrition issues,” they’re also a vocal advocacy group for strictly vegan diets. Oy vey…

    • grace

      Thank you for that level headed comment. I so need to read your type comments! Think I am on track and then read another article that sends me down the research path again…I just want to eat and be healthy. But every time I turn around the rules change. Even eating whole foods is scary these days. You never know what was done to them while in the ground and on their way to you…argh! Have a wonderful weekend!

      • Againstthegrain

        First and foremost, don’t get health information from the media headlines. Learn to ignore it, otherwise it will make a sane person crazy trying to figure out which advice to follow. Too often science and medicine reporting is meant to grab eyeballs to boost circulation numbers, not inform the public. Even when it is meant to inform the public, it’s often based on terrible science. Run away from any research based primarily on epidemiology, or number crunching/massaging the data to find correlation/association of one thing with another. It’s astounding how often it is forgotten that correlation does not prove causation. Epidemiology has a place in coming up with hypotheses for further controlled testing, but epidemiology is used too often to make & enforce policy and promote untested health advice.

        If I do read a media report on a health/nutrition related subject, I always look up the study and read it in its entirely – not just just the summary (FYI, your busy doctor probably reads the summary, if he/she bothers to look up the summary at all – many just take the pharma rep’s word). PubMed can be used by anyone with an internet connection, and with practice, even non-scientists can learn how to screen a study for a good/bad design, summaries that don’t jive with the results, and conflicts of interest. Many health studies only have very small samples, aren’t well-controlled, are changed/ended early when results are different from expectations, aren’t peer-reviewed, and too many are published in obscure pay-to-publish journals. Sometimes, the media reporting is based on a graduate student poster presented at a conference – again, not peer-reviewed. Even peer-reviewed studies are subject to considerable bias, poor reference choices, undeclared funding conflicts of interest, and other limitations.

    • Againstthegrain

      Agreed on all points. Humans have been consuming acrylamide compounds in fire-cooked foods for eons, so we probably have a reasonable tolerance to them when they are in real foods, unlike the vast majority of food products cooked up in corporate food chemistry labs for the supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.

      I also recommend the Nourishing Traditions book for a sane and thoughtful perspective and instruction on traditional foods consumed throughout the world both now and in the past, wacky bits notwithstanding.

      CSPI is an unscientific advocacy group that is anything but in the public interest. I’m deeply embarrassed that about 25 years ago I subscribed to their newsletter and thought CSPI was a credible organization (I thank my research scientist husband for resisting my past efforts to cut his butter consumption, and credit him for educating me about how the business of science works, how epidemiology research provides poor evidence for prescribing a healthful diet, and pointing out the pitifully poor and biased weakness of CSPI’s “scientific evidence”). Furthermore, CSPI essentially harassed restaurants and movie theaters throughout the US & North America into ditching more tasty and heat-stable traditional beef tallow deep fry fat and coconut oil corn popping oil for nasty trans fat laden hydrogenated vegetable oils made from pesticide-laced soybean and cottonseed oils. CSPI, who ironically is now at the forefront the anti-trans fat campaign actually dismissed trans fats as a health danger when it began pushing for the universal adoption of industrial seed oils in commercially prepared food. It pains me to see that CSPI’s influence persists and influences the unknowing public.

  • Chuck

    RE: “What pisses me off…..”

    And, kindly tell me just who on the planet cares if you get “pissed off.”

    WOW! What a narcissistic (obviously uneducated) blowhard you are.

  • Andy

    It seems like this is less about eliminating acrylamide and more about normalizing genetically modified foods in the minds of consumers.


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