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A Hot Potato

The poor potato is being mashed by criticism. Too high a glycemic index, critics say, which means more sugar in the bloodstream for anyone concerned about diabetes. Forget about eating potatoes, say the proponents of low carb diets. French fries? Forget it. Loaded with fat

The poor potato is being mashed by criticism. Too high a glycemic index, critics say, which means more sugar in the bloodstream for anyone concerned about diabetes. Forget about eating potatoes, say the proponents of low carb diets. French fries? Forget it. Loaded with fat. And supporters of California’s Proposition 65, which stipulates that any substance that has been linked to cancer must be clearly identified, clamor for potato chips to sport a label stating that they contain acrylamide, which is “known to the State of California to cause cancer.” Acrylamide forms when heat causes asparagine, an amino acid present in numerous foods, to react with starch. Potatoes have asparagine and starch, and when it comes to baking or frying, can indeed form acrylamide.

Technically this is a carcinogen because it can cause cancer in animals albeit only when they are treated with doses far greater than human exposure. No epidemiological studies have demonstrated that the traces of acrylamide to which we may be exposed in baked goods, coffee, cereals or potatoes play a role in human cancer. But California politicians argue that less exposure to a carcinogen is always better, and that people should know where such substances are found so they can take appropriate measures. This argument does not fly with most toxicologists who maintain that even with carcinogens there is a threshold effect below which there is no risk.

No matter whether the risk is real or not, reducing the possibility of acrylamide formation can be an effective marketing tool. So along comes the “Innate” potato, developed by the J.R. Simplot Company in the U.S. With its reduced asparagine content it will have less acrylamide when baked or fried. But there is an issue here that may not play so well in the marketplace. The new-fangled potato is a product of genetic engineering. The gene that codes for the production of asparagine, as well as one responsible for the browning of potatoes, has been silenced through a process known as “RNA interference.” This does involve the incorporation of novel genes into the Innate potato, but those genes come from other varieties of cultivated and wild potatoes. No genes from any other species are introduced.

Still, there are critics who contend that RNA interference technology has not been studied well enough, and that asparagine may also play a role in defending the potato against disease causing organisms. And then there is the issue of implying that a “safer” potato has been engineered which can lead to less vigilance about eating fried potatoes. Realistically, the health concern about French fries is the amount of fat they harbour, not their acrylamide content. It is extremely unlikely that there is any health risk arising from consuming this genetically engineered potato, about as unlikely as there being any risk associated with the traces of acrylamide in foods we eat. Basically, though, this new potato is a solution to a problem that never existed.