79 / Potatoes

“Potatoes!”, my wife pronounced the word conclusively, having taken a long, shrewd look at me and noting the unrelenting progression of my cancer.  Her tone of voice brooked no argument.  Implacable.   She had become convinced that potatoes were a root cause of dips in my health. The coincidental nature of the evidence seemed to her of little import.  Henceforth these traduced tubers, would be banished from our diet on suspicion of aiding and abetting in the growth and spread of tumours.

They would go the way that delectable ham slices had gone many years before them.  However, clinging obstinately to a silver lining I note, for as long as I stay at this hospice, it’s possible I could have chips with almost every thing. And it seems to me, this being a university hospital, it's far-fetched to assume it is using noxious or harmful substances – even as an unlikely and disgraceful long-term strategy for freeing up a few hospital beds.

To protect this delicious staple my recourse was simple. Without delay with blind faith I dove head first into wikipedia.  As far as I can tell no one else has yet arrived at the damning conclusion my wife had found intuitively.

The potato, it appears, may be cleared of all charges.  Rather it is a carcinogenic chemical compound called acrylamide that is the real culprit. It seems the method of cooking this versatile vegetable at high temperatures is at the root of the problem. Something called the Maillard reaction which browns cooked foods and gives them their pleasing flavour. occurs at temperatures of over 120 degrees C. As a golden guideline the browner (and drier) the food the higher the levels of acrylamide it will contain. Acrylamide is converted to glycidamide in the body and can bind to DNA to cause mutation.

Along with potato chips, French fries and crisps, important food sources of acrylamide are crackers, biscuits and bread, breakfast cereals, canned black olives, prune juice and coffee. In 2007, an EU report into Heat Generated, FoodToxicants, found that food (including potatoes) when exposed to a temperature of 120 degrees C, or more, contained high levels of this villainous culprit, acrylamide. Nutritionists point out that as a general rule boiling or steaming foodstuffs is preferable to baking or frying; and the shorter the cooking time the healthier the victuals will remain. It is recommended further that soaking potatoes for fifteen to thirty minutes prior to cooking will help preserve nutrients. My wife, to whom I defer in all matters gastronomic, is therefore at least partly vindicated.  However, Emma Shields of Cancer Research UK, adds the caveat that studies carried out on animals are difficult to apply with accuracy to humans. She clearly needs my wife behind her to boost her confidence in her conclusions.


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