Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Cancer Exceptionalism

Okay, we've got another monster hurricane getting ready to wipe out a city or two, a war in a distant land that has descended past nightmare into the ninth circle of hell, and an imminent global flu pandemic that threatens to set civilization back 200 years, or at least disrupt the NFL playoffs (which should please C. Corax no end). This seems like a perfect occasion to talk about french fries.

I am inspired to this post by an article in the business section -- where else?-- of yesterday's NYWT, by Melanie Warner, but it's not exactly breaking news. French fries are the single biggest selling item in U.S. restaurants, pulling in $4 billion a year for your friendly neighborhood mom and pop businesses such as McDonald's and Burger King. Potato chips, which are basically the same thing in very thin, flat form, are worth $3 billion a year to health food companies like Frito-Lay (owned by the folks who bring you Pepsi Cola).

The outer crust of deep fried potato fragments is saturated with trans-fats, chemicals which are rare in nature but ubiquitous in deep fried foods and mass produced baked goods. Trans fats are much worse than saturated fats at raising your bad (LDL) cholesterol and clogging your arteries. The rest of the product consists of empty calories from simple starches, with no fiber, which makes you fat and diabetic. Now don't panic -- eating fries once in a while isn't going to kill you, but making a habit of it is a very bad idea.

The state of California is suing the food companies to put warning labels on potato chips and in restaurants that sell french fries, but it's not to tell you about heart disease. It's to warn you about a chemical called acrylamide, which is formed when starch is cooked at high heat, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals and is present at higher levels in fried potatoes than in any other food. (Warning: it's even worse if you make them at home. Seriously.) It probably contributes to cancer in humans, but nobody knows to what degree or what the dose-response relationship is.

California has a law -- passed by ballot initiative -- that requires warning labels on any product containing a known carcinogen. Obviously the food companies are panicking -- who's going to buy a bag of french fries labeled with a warning about cancer?

But acrylamide is also present, albeit at lower levels, in a host of other foods including prune juice, nuts, grilled vegetables, and whole wheat toast. At the same time, there are naturally occurring carcinogens in black pepper, fresh mushrooms, and other foods, and of course alcohol is carcinogenic.

The risk of heart disease from eating french fries and potato chips is almost certainly far greater than the risk of cancer. It's certainly far better established. But for some reason our society is obssessed, out of all the risks to our health, with cancer. Federal law prohibits the addition to food of any chemical shown to promote cancer in animals, to any degree, in any amount. But it is legal to put as much trans fat in food as consumers will choke down. People who don't buckle their seat belts eat only organic food because they're worried about pesticide residues. All I have to say about this is that I wouldn't particularly care to choose among cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Why single out cancer so disproportionately?

We need to put it all in perspective and remember this: for every single person on this earth, the ultimate cause of death is birth.

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