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The 'French Fry = Cancer' Debate

A top World Health Organization official said on Thursday that findings by Swedish scientists that carbohydrate-rich foods contain a likely cancer-causing substance were worrying, but more research was needed.

Jorgen Schlundt, head of the WHO's food safety program, said that it was still too early to evaluate the real risk to people after research found worryingly high levels of acrylamide in such foods as potato crisps and French fries.

"It is alarming enough to go out and tell people that this has been found, but I am not saying that the world should simply stop eating these foods," he told Reuters.

Schlundt said that the WHO, the United Nations' health arm, planned to gather experts at its Geneva headquarters to examine the question, but it might be a couple of months before such a meeting could be held.

"We are not saying that everybody is going to be dying from this in 30 years, but we are saying that there is a potential problem and that we need to know more," he said.

On Wednesday, scientists at Stockholm University published research carried out with the government food safety agency indicating that acrylamide, already known as a probable cancer-causing agent, was formed in very high concentrations when carbohydrate-rich foods such as rice, potatoes or cereals were fried or baked.

Swedish researchers estimated acrylamide could be responsible for several hundred of the 45,000 cancer cases in Sweden each year, based on experiments in which rats were fed fried food.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies acrylamide, a colorless, crystalline solid, as a "medium hazard probable human carcinogen."

Schlundt said that one question that needed to be answered was whether the formation of acrylamide was linked to the temperature at which the food was cooked. "We need a lot more knowledge before we can make any recommendations," he said.

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