Would You Supersize My Cancer Please? A Case Study Exploring Chemicals in the News
By Ashley Coffelt and Mark M. Richter, Department of Chemistry, Missouri State University, Springfield, MO
Part I—Analyzing the Headlines
One afternoon, Johnny sat in front of the television eating a hamburger and French fries from his favorite burger restaurant down the
street. His sister Else was heading upstairs when she noticed Johnny about to shove several fries in his mouth at one time. She quickly ran
over to him and smacked the fries out of his hand.
―What are you doing?‖ Johnny yelled. ―That was my lunch! Have you lost your mind?!‖
―Johnny, you can’t eat fries anymore! There’s acrylamide in them!‖ Else shouted back, as she took the rest of the fries from his bag and
threw them in the garbage.
Johnny was still fuming as he blurted out, ―Isn’t that the stuff they use for those fake nails you wear?‖
―That’s called acrylics—and no!‖ Else retorted. ―In science class today we were talking about issues in the news. My friend in class asked
Mr. Woods if French fries are deadly because that’s what she heard on the news the night before. Instead of answering our question, Mr.
Woods took us to the library and had us look up articles online about acrylamide.‖
―How can French fries and acrylamide have anything to do with one another?‖ asked Johnny.
―I read today that French fries contain a chemical named acrylamide, which has been linked to cancer,‖ replied Else. ―Now do you see why
I don’t want you to eat those fries?‖
―Well, is it an absolute sure thing that they cause cancer?‖ asked Johnny. ―It seems today that everything causes cancer. Last week you
threw my cell phone in the toilet because you said the radiation from the phone causes cancer!‖
Else gave Johnny a mean look and asked him, ―Would you at least read these news articles I have and tell me what you think?‖
After thumbing through the news articles, Johnny said, ―I’ll look through these with you on one condition: You buy me more fries if I
don’t agree with your position or you have to buy me another hamburger, since I can’t eat French fries if I do!‖
The following is a listing of headlines for the news articles that Else gave to Johnny:
1. ―Serving up Cancer‖
2. ―California Wants to Serve a Warning with Fries‖
3. ―Acrylamide: Snack Food Cancer Risk or Not‖
4. ―Cancer Chemical Link to Crisps Discovered‖
5. ―Fried Food Chemical Is Not a Health Risk‖
1. Assuming all of the news articles are using the same scientific research study as a source, why do you think some headlines say
acrylamide is cancerous and others say it is not? (Hint: Look at headlines #1, 3, and 6.)
2. Should you infer, based on the headlines alone, that acrylamide in fried foods is a health risk?
3. Should you conclude, based on the headlines alone, that acrylamide in fried foods is a health risk?
4. What do you think about Headline #2? Do you think restaurants should include a warning label on the carton of French fries? Why or
5. After reading these headlines alone, would you reduce your intake of French fries? Yes? No? Maybe? Justify your answer.
6. Predict what kinds of scientific methods the news stories used in determining whether or not acrylamide is cancerous.
Would You Supersize My Cancer Please? by Coffelt and Richter Part II—Analyzing the News Articles
The class will be divided up into groups and each group given copies of one or two of the news articles listed in Part I (see Resources
below). When everyone in the group has read an article, please work as a team to answer the following questions.
1. Look at the article carefully and state what it says about:
* Why acrylamide is harmful.
* What individuals need to do about their intake of acrylamide.
* How acrylamide is formed.
* What experiment(s) did the source use to determine the effects of acrylamide.
* What group, organization, or people wrote the article.
* List the main conclusion(s) of the article.
2. Is the article from a credible source? Explain your answer.
3. Explain how you would have performed this experiment differently. If you would have tested acrylamide in the same way, please
4. To do an accurate risk assessment, one would need to know the toxicity of acrylamide and the amount of acrylamide an individual is
exposed to. Does the article discuss these terms or make reference to toxicity and/or exposure?
5. After reading the actual news articles, would you reduce your intake of French fries? Yes? No? Maybe? Explain your answer.
Headline #1—Serving up Cancer. ABC News Online, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Headline #2—California Wants to Serve a Warning with Fries. The New York Times.
Headline #3—Acrylamide: Snack Food Cancer Risk or Not? Swedish Medical Center.
Acrylamide: Snack Food Cancer Risk or Not?
If warnings about fat, sodium, and empty calories didn’t stop you from eating your
favorite fried and starchy snack foods, how about warnings about acrylamide? In 2002,
researchers found high levels of acrylamide, a potentially cancer-causing agent, in a
number of common foods. But, what is acrylamide? And should you avoid foods containing
Acrylamide is an odorless, colorless chemical agent used to manufacture certain
chemicals, plastics and dyes, which may have the potential for causing cancer in humans.
A Swedish study published in the August 14, 2002 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and
Food Chemistry found that frying or baking at high temperatures (greater than 250°F) for
prolonged periods of time could create acrylamide in many types of food, particularly
starchy foods such as: French fries, Potato chips, Crackers, Certain types of fried or
baked bread, Some processed cereals
Researchers in Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States
conducted food analyses and came up with similar findings to the Swedish study. According
to a survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a large order of fast food
French fries had at least 300 times more acrylamide than what the US Environmental
Protection Agency allows in a glass of water. The amount of acrylamide varied according
to the type of food and, in some cases, the brand of a particular food. French fries had
one of the highest amounts of acrylamide.
Scientists have concluded that acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory rats when ingested
in large amounts. And large quantities of acrylamide have been found to cause nerve
damage in humans. But so far, there is no evidence that the tiny amounts of acrylamide in
cooked foods can cause cancer or other harmful effects when ingested by people.
According to the American Council on Science and Health, human cancer risk from dietary
acrylamide cannot be adequately assessed when based exclusively on high-dose studies in
laboratory animals. They believe that the acrylamide food studies probably caused
unnecessary anxiety in consumers.
A study published in the January 28, 2003 issue of the British Journal of Cancer, found
no evidence that eating foods high in acrylamide increases the risk of cancer of the
large bowel, bladder, and kidney. In the study, researchers from Harvard School of Public
Health and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden compared the diets of close to 1,000 cancer
patients and more than 500 healthy adults over a five-year period.
The researchers found that people who ate the most acrylamide were at no greater risk of
cancer than those who ate less. They also found that people who ate moderate to high
levels of acrylamide had no higher risk of any of the types of cancer studied. The
researchers note, however, that the relation of risk to acrylamide content in all foods
could not be established. A similar study by Dr. Mucci was published in the July 2005
issue of the International Journal of Cancer. The study also failed to find any
relationship between acrylamide intake and colon cancer in women.
Although the latest research provides some evidence that there is no link between dietary
intake of acrylamide and three major types of cancer, more research is necessary. The US
Food and Drug Administration is now working to develop a better understanding of how
acrylamide is chemically formed, how to measure its presence in food, and how it
functions in the human body.
Many consumers feel reassured by the two Harvard studies on dietary acrylamide and
cancer. Others remain somewhat wary and have cut back on their consumption of fries,
potato chips, and other known acrylamide-containing foods. What’s a consumer to do?
When it comes to acrylamide in food, the American Institute for Cancer Research stresses
that consumers keep the following points in mind: French fries, potato chips, crackers,
and other high-acrylamide foods are often high in calories and low in nutritional value.
High consumption of these foods has been linked to increased cancer risk for reasons that
have nothing to do with acrylamide. People who eat lots of these foods tend to crowd
other foods off the plate (foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains,
which have been shown to provide protection against certain types of cancer). Eating a
lot of fat and calories also contributes to obesity, which can increase the risk for many
* If you are concerned about cancer risk:
o Increase your consumption of plant foods, especially a variety of vegetables
o Limit your consumption of fried, fatty, and salty foods.
o Get regular physical activity & maintain a healthful weight
o Limit consumption of alcohol & Do not smoke
The World Health Organization (WHO) and regulatory agencies of the United States, United
Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Germany have not recommended any changes in dietary habits
on the basis of the current evidence concerning acrylamide in food. The US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and the scientific community will continue to evaluate data and
determine appropriate recommendations, as necessary.
Headline #4—Cancer Chemical Link to Crisps Discovered. BBC News World Edition.
Cancer chemical link to crisps discovered
The chemical is created in the cooking of crisps. Scientists have discovered how the
production of crisps and chips creates the potentially cancer-causing chemical
Earlier this year, it was revealed that the foods contained unusually high levels of the
chemical, which has been shown to cause cancer and nerve damage in laboratory animals. A
team from the University of Reading looked at how the chemical could be formed.
They suspected it could be created by a reaction between an amino acid called asparagine,
which occurs naturally in relatively high levels in potatoes and other cereals, and
sugar. If you know how it's formed, there is a chance we can control its formation
Professor Donald Mottram, University of Reading Tests confirmed that when the amino acid
is heated, it does react with sugar to create acrylamide, a process called the Maillard
reaction. This occurs at temperatures above 100°C (212°F).
Acrylamide is a substance used to produce plastics and to purify water and it is known to
be carcinogenic. Prior to concerns being raised about the chemical's presence in food,
scientists were warning of the possible harmful effect on those exposed to it via their
water or job. Professor Donald Mottram, an expert in food chemistry at the University of
Reading, led the research. He told BBC News Online: "If you know how it's formed, there
is a chance we can control its formation.
"Further research will be done to see if there are ways we can minimize its formation."
But he said, unless people stopped cooking the foods, the chemical would not be
eliminated completely. "Elevated levels" of acrylamide have been found by the World
Health Organization in home-cooked as well as pre-cooked, packaged and processed foods.
But the WHO said it was not clear what danger was posed to people's health. A spokesman
told AFP news agency: "The information available on acrylamide so far reinforces general
advice on healthy eating, including moderating consumption of fried and fatty foods.
"There is not enough evidence about the amounts of acrylamide in different types of food
to recommend avoiding any particular food product."
Headline #5—Fried Food Chemical Is Not Cancer Risk. BUPA Co, UK.
Health news - Fried food chemical is not cancer risk
A study has shown that a chemical in baked and fried food does not increase the risk of breast cancer in women. The chemical,
acrylamide, is found in fried foods, crisps, coffee, chips and biscuits. Laboratory studies have shown that high doses of acrylamide
cause cancer in animals. Scientists feared that eating foods containing the substance may put people at risk too. Earlier studies in
people have already shown that acrylamide does not cause bladder, bowel or kidney cancer either. These findings suggest that the
potential cancer risk from eating acrylamide-containing foods is very small.
What is acrylamide? Acrylamide is a chemical used in a number of industrial processes including making cosmetics and glues, and
removing particles from drinking water. However, acrylamide is also found in some cooked foods. Which foods contain acrylamide?
High levels of acrylamide are found in starchy foods (foods containing complex carbohydrates, such as potatoes and cereals) that
have been fried, oven-baked or microwaved, including: baked potatoes, bread, crisps, chips, biscuits.
Acrylamide is also found in coffee, formed when the coffee beans are roasted. Lower levels of acrylamide are found in protein-rich
foods such as cooked beef and chicken. Very little or no acrylamide is found in uncooked or boiled foods. How does acrylamide form
in food? Acrylamide forms when starchy foods are cooked at temperatures of more than 100°C. Certain foods contain a substance
called asparagine. When this is heated to more than 100°C it reacts with the sugars in starchy food to produce acrylamide.
Does it matter how the food was cooked? Yes. Any cooking method that uses temperatures over 100°C can produce acrylamide in
starchy foods. This includes: frying, baking, oven cooking, microwaving.
The higher the temperature the starchy food is heated to, the more acrylamide is formed. Boiled foods do not contain acrylamide
because they are not cooked at temperatures above 100°C. How was this study carried out? The researchers looked at the diets of
more than 43,000 Swedish women, including 667 women with breast cancer. In 1991 the women filled in questionnaires about how
often they ate different foods. The researchers used their answers to work out how much acrylamide the women were eating each
The women were split into five groups according to how much acrylamide they ate. Group one ate the least, group five ate the most.
The researchers also followed the women's health until the end of 2002. This allowed the researchers to compare the women's daily
acrylamide intake with the development of breast cancer.
How much acrylamide did the women eat? Women in group one ate about 12 micrograms a day and women in group five ate about
44 micrograms a day. The average daily acrylamide intake was 25.9 micrograms. This is roughly 1,000 to 100,000 times lower than
the levels that cause cancer in animals. Which foods contributed the most acrylamide to daily intake? The foods that contributed the
most to the women's daily intake of acrylamide were: coffee (54 percent), fried potatoes (12 percent), crisp bread (nine percent)
What did the study find? The study found that the women who ate more foods containing acrylamide (groups two to five) had the
same risk of developing breast cancer as those who ate the smallest amounts of these foods (group one). What do these findings
mean for me? According to this study, eating acrylamide-rich foods does not increase the risk of developing breast cancer.
What about other cancers and acrylamide? Earlier research has found that found that eating acrylamide does not increase the risk of
developing kidney, bladder or large bowel cancers. Scientists had previously thought that these were the cancers most likely to be
caused by acrylamide.
Why did scientists fear that acrylamide could cause cancer? Rats and mice given high doses of acrylamide develop cancers in their
breasts, lungs, thyroid glands, adrenal glands, testes and central nervous system. Because of these findings, acrylamide was classified
as "probably carcinogenic (cancer-inducing) to humans" by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on
Cancer. However, it has never been shown that acrylamide actually causes cancer in humans.
Are there any other risks of acrylamide? Acrylamide can affect the nervous system if high doses are eaten or inhaled, or people are
exposed to it long-term - for example people working in an industry using the chemical.5,6 It can cause fits or hallucinations, or
How common is breast cancer in the UK? Each year, 41,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK.7 It accounts for
one in three cases of cancer, making it the most common cancer in women.7 One in nine women will develop the disease at some
time in her life. The risk of developing breast cancer is very small in young women and increases as women get older. More than
half of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 65.
Is it only women who develop breast cancer? No. Breast cancer can occur in men, but it is more than 100 times less common than in
women (there are roughly 300 new cases a year).
Case Teaching Notes for “Would You Supersize My Cancer Please? A Case Study Exploring Chemicals in the News”
By Ashley Coffelt and Mark M. Richter, Department of Chemistry, Missouri State University, Springfield, MO
Introduction / Background
This case involves the aftermath of a press conference held by Sweden’s National Food Administration in April of 2002. During that press
conference, it was announced that researchers at the University of Stockholm had discovered acrylamide in French fries, potato chips, and
in a number of other common and highly popular foods, especially fried and baked goods (Tareke et al., 2002). In fact, some of the foods
had acrylamide concentrations hundreds of times higher than the maximum amount allowed in drinking water (WHO, 2003).
Acrylamide (see figure shown to right) is known to cause cancer in animals in studies where they were exposed to very high doses (FDA,
2006). Acrylamide is also a well known neurotoxin (FDA, 2006) and can cause nerve damage in people who have been exposed to very
high levels at work. Although no direct link between acrylamide in food and human health has been shown, the researchers suggested that
the presence of acrylamide in foods might account for thousands of cases of human cancer every year. Naturally, the acrylamide story made
international headlines and resulted in a flurry of activity by media outlets, consumers, researchers, and the food industry. However, after
the initial media frenzy receded, questions still remained about whether acrylamide in food is ―much ado about nothing‖ or whether
consumers should think carefully about changing their eating habits. Some of these questions are explored in this case.
This case is designed for use in courses for non-science majors. It can also be adapted for freshman- and senior-seminar courses by placing
more emphasis on the technical and chemical content of the studies. It works well in classes of 25 (or less) students working in teams of 3–
5 individuals. Students receive the different parts of the case in sequence to build upon knowledge obtained in the previous section. This
case can be completed in three 50-minute lecture periods and is modeled after ―Cell Phone Use and Cancer: A Case Study to Explore the
Scientific Method‖ (Colon Parilla, 2006).
The overall objectives are to evaluate the appearance of ―a chemical in the news‖ and the sensational claims that often accompany such an
appearance, and to compare the accuracy of claims made in news articles with those presented in scientific studies.
Specific objectives include:
* Compare and analyze the headlines of news articles, assuming all are generated based on the same scientific information.
* Compare and analyze the headlines of news articles with the content of the news articles.
* Compare and contrast the information presented in news articles with that found in scientific articles.
* Have students evaluate their own choices (with specific reference to French fries) as more information is made available to them.
* Have students appreciate the value of chemistry, and science in general, to their everyday lives.
This case is divided into three parts. In each part, students are broken up into groups of 3–5 students who work as a team. We have used
the case at different points in the semester; although little to no knowledge of chemistry is needed on the part of students, a familiarity with
the scientific method is helpful. The case can be completed in three 50-minute, or two 75-minute, class periods.
Part I—Analyzing the Headlines
Students are divided into groups and given five minutes to read the case story and the headlines and to familiarize themselves with the
questions. Students are then given 20 to 25 minutes to answer the questions as a group. At the end of this time, one member from each
group is asked to provide an answer for a specific question, with other members of the group being asked if they wish to provide any
further details. At this point, a general class discussion of the question is encouraged before moving on to the next group and question.
This activity typically takes 25–30 minutes. Question 4 of Part I in particular tends to generate a considerable amount of discussion (―Do
you think restaurants should include a warning label on the carton of French fries?‖), often leading to questions about legal liability and the
ability of the state and federal government to regulate foods. The main objective of Question 6 (―Predict what kinds of scientific methods
the articles used in determining whether or not acrylamide is cancerous‖) is to have the students realize that they may not have enough
information to provide an informed opinion unless they are already familiar with the literature on acrylamide.
At the end of the first class period, students are given copies of each of the news articles from Part I (#1 ABC, 2002; #2 Warner, 2005; #3
Scholten, 2005; #4 BBC, 2002; #5 NCI, 2002; #6 BUPA, 2005) and instructed to read them by the next class period.
Part II—Analyzing the News Articles
At the beginning of the second class period, students are broken up into groups and assigned one or two of the news articles to focus on.
The format outlined in Part I is then followed, with students given 20 to 25 minutes to answer the questions in Part II, followed by a
general class discussion as each group is asked to start the discussion on one or more of the questions. Question 2 (―Is the article from a
credible source?‖) tends to generate the most discussion in this section, with students quickly realizing some individuals are simply
―venting‖ while others are trying to present a reasonably accurate picture (dramatic headlines aside). Question 4 asks students to evaluate
the two components that comprise an accurate risk assessment, toxicity and exposure. If the students have not been exposed to these
terms previously, the instructor may need to spend some time explaining them.