ZIENA HAMDONAH/THE VARSITY

As you drag yourself out of bed, dreading the upcoming deadline for your research paper and that term test you’ll probably have to cram for tonight, what you eat for breakfast is probably the least of your worries. While you are scrambling to get ready for class and cursing the clock for moving too fast, you mindlessly pop a piece of bread in the toaster, not giving much thought to its nutritional technicalities — until you hear the news about its potential cancer risk.

Last week, food officials in the UK labeled “crunchy roast potatoes” and “burnt toast” as “danger foods,” causing a stir among bread lovers around the world and even inducing hypochondria in some.

Who’s the culprit?

Don’t blame yourself for indulging in your favourite on-the-go breakfast.

The real culprit here is acrylamide, classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. This chemical is formed when “high-starch foods — such as potatoes, breads and parsnips — are baked, roasted, grilled or fried at high temperatures.”

It’s difficult to completely eliminate it from our diet as trace amounts are found in foods that we consume everyday such as coffee, cookies, and cakes. “Basically, they’re found anywhere where you have some sugar that is glucose together with the amino acid, asparagine,” explains Dr. Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill University for Science & Society, in one of his blog videos.

Through a series of chemical conversions known as Maillard reactions, a chemical called acrylamide forms. Studies have shown that high levels of acrylamide cause cancer in rodents; however, there is no clear evidence that a similar risk exists in humans. A prolonged exposure to acrylamide-containing foods, however, could increase the risk.

Schwarcz states that “epidemiological studies that looked at cancer cases and food intake have revealed no connection between the amount of acrylamide which we are exposed and cancer.”

So, should we give up toast?

According to Dr. Daiva Nielsen, a lecturer in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at U of T, the typical human exposure to acrylamide is too low to cause cancer. She reassures us that there is no need to get rid of your daily morning toast as long as you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Her advice is to simply follow the golden rule: everything in moderation. She suggests limiting burnt foods overall in your diet, including charred meat. “Eat the latkes,” said Schwarcz. “Of course we should because there’s more to life than worrying about every morsel of food that we put into our mouth.”

Schwarcz imparts the following advice: “Do your best to stick to the light rather than the brown. Follow the Golden Rule.”

Note: A previous version of this article attributed the quote concerning moderation and latkes to Dr. Nielsen. Instead, it was a quote from Dr. Schwarcz.

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