Howard Croft column: Stand firm in the fight against toast terrorism

The dangers of eating burnt or overdone toast hit the national news headlines recently.
The dangers of eating burnt or overdone toast hit the national news headlines recently.

Last week the Food Standards Agency alerted us to the dangers of brown toast and well-done roast potatoes, pretty common constituents of the diets of most of us. Analysis of these foods showed raised levels of acrylamide, a chemical of which I had not previously heard. Animal studies (using mice) “suggest” that acrylamide may cause changes in DNA and cancer in mice. This revelation hit the headlines in most of the national newspapers.

So far, so scary. A few days later we read that other foodstuffs (25 in all), including gingerbread men, Hovis granary bread, crisps of every kind, biscuits, ice cream wafers and some processed baby foods presented a similar health risk.

The Food Standards Agency has, in conjunction with the European Commission, allocated “indicative values” to acrylamide content of foods. Just two examples: the indicative value for Marks and Spencer sea salt and balsamic vinegar crisps is 1000 (micrograms per kilogram), whereas the level found on testing was 1,240. McVitie’s crispy wheat and rye crackers, allocated an “indicative value” of 500, came in at 544.

So, what is are “suggested indicative values”? According to the Food Standards Agency they are “not legal maximum limits nor are they safety levels”, they are “performance indicators designed to promote best practice”, whatever that means. Remember, all this is based on studies of mice.

What does all this mean to you and me? Well, not much. The agency is talking about lifetime consumption not occasional eating. For those of us on the dark side of 70 there is no hope; we cannot possibly back-calculate how many roast potatoes or overdone slices of toast we have already wolfed down and in any case we do not have access to the suggested indicative values.

However, if you happen to be a mouse fancier you had better mend your ways pretty fast; feed your mouse a crust of breakfast toast and the RSPCA will have you up before the magistrates in less time than it takes to pull up your undies in the morning.

The problem about this scare – non-scare is a better term – is that it will frighten young parents, naturally concerned that they should be giving their offspring the best start in life, especially if they are feeding them with baby wheat flakes (“indicative value” 50, tested value 577).

They will not be helped by the fact that, apart from the 25 products tested, they have no idea what the “indicative value” is of anything. All they can do is panic.

But, for most people it will increase their scepticism about research-based health stories in the press, Many of them merely prematurely released and highly theoretical speculation of little scientific value.

Among them, of course, will be genuinely helpful warnings that should be heeded to some purpose and based on rather more solid foundations than a few years mucking about with mice in a laboratory.

In the interests of balance, that modern shibboleth, it is worth hearing what an independent statistician (Dr David Spiegelhalter) had to say: the link to human cancer is extremely weak. “Adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide could consume 160 times as much and still only be at the level that toxicologists think unlikely to cause increased tumours in mice.” (Quoted in the Daily Mail).

He questions the appropriateness of launching a public health campaign on the basis of these rodent studies. Roasties all round on Sundays then.

But you might want to consider going easy on mini gingerbread men mini-bites (“indicative value” 1,000, test result 1,324), if only because of the politically incorrect description. In my local bun shop they are gingerbread persons.

It is a long time since our language changed to accommodate dogmas and sensitivities, when workmen became “operatives”, chairman became “chairs” and extreme foul language was coded in the press.

I have noticed in the press recently that even mild expletives are thinly disguised – a kind of sensitivity creep. Bloody, for example, is often rendered “b****y”.

I look forward to reading in the financial press that “unemployment figures are expected to b****m out in the third quarter.

It reminds me of the modest screen introduced for our computers when I was working as a medical publisher.

It was so sensitive that it was impossible receive emails from authors who were urologists, gynaecologists and proctologists since so many of their technical words enjoyed other, less polite uses.

B*m got through OK, though – I checked.