Harpenden scientist’s research into spuds

SCIENTISTS in Harpenden hope their research into reducing cancer-causing substances in some foods produced from potatoes, wheat and rye makes breakfast cereals and the humble spud safer to eat.

Coffee, French fries, bread, cereal and biscuits are among a wide range of food that can contain a chemical compound called acrylamide, a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen.

Discovered in 2002, the compound forms when some carbohydrate rich food is cooked at high temperatures, such as roasting, frying and baking.


But you can still enjoy your roast dinner, according to Professor Nigel Halford, who is leading a project on the compound at Rothamsted Research and has spent the past seven years examining and reducing the precursor to acrylamide, a poison which acts on the nervous system and can possibly cause cancer.

This precursor, a type of amino acid which helps give spuds flavour, colour and aromas when being roasted, fried or baked, is the main focus of Prof Halford’s research at present.

He is aiming to reduce this amino acid in potatoes, wheat and rye, through plant nutrition and genetics. Prof Halford explained: “We look at how plants control metabolism, which underpins how much sugar and free asparagine [an amino acid] accumulates in the tuber or grain.”

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In fact he has advised grain growers to add sulphur to the soil as research has found that there is a deficiency of this element, due to Britain’s concerted efforts at greener living.

“Less pollution means less acid rain – rainfall made acidic by atmospheric sulphur and nitrogen oxides from industrial burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

However adding sulphur only works for wheat, as rye tolerates sulphur deficiency much better and potato responds differently.

Prof Halford explained: “The advice we have already given to farmers and producers is that they must make sure wheat has adequate sulphur supplied because if it doesn’t, the wheat accumulates very high levels of [the amino acid] in the grain.

“We understand a lot more of the genetic control of the accumulation of asparagine in wheat, rye and potatoes and we are in the process of identifying genetic markers and the environmental things, like sulphur that affect levels as well, so we can give that information to plant breeders and growers.”

But he said people should not “worry unnecessarily” about eating chips and biscuits as while “the toxicology is clear” and very high levels of acrylamide cause cancer in rodents, scientists don’t know what the risk is in humans and most studies haven’t found a link between these foods and cancer formation.


But as there is “potential risk” food regulators and processors are keen to reduce acrylamide levels as a third of our dietary intake in the UK comes from cereal and potato products.

Levels of acrylamide in bread are relatively low. Biscuits and some breakfast cereals, depending on how they are made, have higher content.

Prof Halford said: “One of the issues facing the industry is that the European Commission is in the process of issuing guidance on levels of acrylamide.

“There is going to be a struggle getting some products under the guidance levels.”

He added: “It’s great to be doing the research. It’s science and technology making food safer.”