LAU study highlights great cancer risk posed by chips
Biology students investigate the carcinogenic and neurotoxic risks of acrylamide and heavy metals in one of Lebanese children’s favorite snacks.
“After we conducted the research, I cut down on potato chips and now rarely have any,” says medical student Essa Hariri who, while a biology undergraduate, teamed up with other LAU students and faculty members to examine the carcinogenic and neurotoxic risks of acrylamide and heavy metals contained in the potato and corn chips consumed by the Lebanese population.
Scientists have for decades known that acrylamide – a white solid accumulated when carbohydrate-based products are heated – is a carcinogenic compound. Legislation has yet to control the amount of acrylamide in foods and popular snacks in much of the world, including potato and corn chips, though some regulation does restrict its presence in drinking water. “Until you establish a direct and irrefutable link between cancer and acrylamide, legislation will remain weak,” says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Robin Taleb, who supervised the work of Hariri, the study’s principal investigator, and his peers Martine Abboud and Sally Damirdjian.
The students ran experiments in the lab over several months and conducted a survey to determine the consumption habits of Lebanese people with regard to both foreign and domestically produced potato and corn chips. Their conclusions were presented in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.
The average acrylamide level in potato and corn chips was found to be 3,500 times higher than the permissible limit for the compound in drinking water, while the daily consumption of acrylamide from potato and corn chips in Lebanon was found to be 7-40 times higher than the risk intake for carcinogenesis set by the World Health Organization.
In short, people in Lebanon consume at least seven times the amount of carcinogenic substance through chips than is deemed healthy. “People in Lebanon eat on average between five and 10 bags of chips per week, with school-aged children consuming the most,” explains Hariri.
The study also found that acrylamide was more prevalent in foreign brands than domestically produced chips as well as baked chips, commonly considered the healthy alternative, than fried chips. “Baked foods are indeed healthier when it comes to cholesterol, but in the case of carbohydrate-based foods, the higher temperatures used in baking result in higher formation of acrylamide,” explains Taleb, noting that while all carbohydrate-based foods contain acrylamide, the amount present increases exponentially with heat.
While a review of the level of metals in the chips found that they did not pose a neurotoxic risk, the study definitely established the carcinogenic risks of over-consuming chips.
Hariri, who enjoys a full merit scholarship at LAU, first pitched the research proposal to his professor in class. “All students must present research proposals during my ‘instrumental analysis chemistry’ class, but this was the first time I asked students to actually conduct the experimental investigation proposed,” explains Taleb. That initial opportunity spurred Hariri’s continued interest in research. “It was the spark that immersed me in multiple clinical research projects and clinical trials,” says the third year LAU medical student who has already been credited in two additional journal papers.