Sunday, May 16, 2004

Healthy diets, fried food, acrylamide and cancer 

"The problem with diets is that before you get to your goal weight, you might just drop dead from boredom." So wrote Tan Hsueh Yun, news editor of The Sunday Times, in a column today.

That really is the problem with healthy diets: they tend to be boring. Or maybe I should rephrase that.

We tend to eat tasty foods to excess, until they become unhealthy. For it is excess that is really unhealthy. Most foods that we like are actually relatively healthy when eaten in moderation.

In another column for The Sunday Times today, Wong Ah Yoke wrote about Eng Wah Organisation's first restaurant, Legends Garden. The restaurant serves mainly Cantonese fare.

One of its dishes is deep-fried beancurd, "golden on the outside and snowy white inside". Wong described it as a "tasty and healthy dish".

Deep-fried? Healthy? Whatever happened to the acrylamide scare?

For those who have forgotten, in 2002, researchers from the Stockholm University and Sweden's National Food Administration, a government food safety agency, found that bread, chips, crisps and other carbohydrate-rich foods, when fried or baked at high temperatures, contain high levels of acrylamide. The researchers found that an ordinary bag of crisps may contain up to 500 times more of the substance than the top level allowed in drinking water by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Acrylamide is classified as a probable human carcinogen. It induces gene mutations and has been found in animal tests to cause benign and malignant stomach tumours. It is also known to cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous system.

Subsequent studies from other countries have found similarly high levels of acrylamide in many baked and fried foods. Scientists suspect that acrylamide is produced when asparagine, an amino acid abundant in cereals and grains, is heated above 100 degrees Centigrade with either of two sugars, glucose or 2-deoxyglucose.

However, the link between acrylamide and cancer, especially in humans, is far from proven. In fact, early last year, a report in the British Journal of Cancer from a study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, found no association between the consumption of foods high in acrylamide and increased risk of cancer.

Having said that, fried foods have long been considered "heaty" in traditional Chinese medicine. Whatever the exact effects may be, it is probably desirable to eat fried foods in moderation, and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables instead.

Boring, you say? Well, maybe Tan Hsueh Yun has the right answer. Which is: Eat as many different things as possible so you don't hanker after anything and go on a massive binge.

"The answer has to be about seeking out flavours to keep the taste buds interested," she wrote, "and eating a variety of healthy food to keep the boredom at bay."


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