Chefs use a method called the Maillard reaction to brown foods to add rich flavors, colors and aromas. It’s what gives french fries their crisp texture and bread a toasted golden color.

This reaction combines a naturally occurring amino acid (asparagine) with sugars (natural or added) in some starchy foods at high temperatures. When this happens at a temperature above 248 degrees F (typically when frying, roasting or baking), a substance called acrylamide is formed. Evidence from animal studies indicates a possible increased risk of some cancers with exposure to acrylamide but this isn’t clear in humans. Until human studies confirm or rule out a link, here are some things to consider:

Cigarette smoke is one of the major sources of acrylamide exposure.

Acrylamide doesn’t come from food packaging.

Since acrylamide in food forms through a high-heat cooking process. organic and non-organic foods have similar acrylamide levels when cooked at similar temperatures.

To decrease acrylamide formation, cook starchy foods (like potatoes or bread) until lightly golden rather than darkly toasted in color.

Store potatoes in a cool, dark, dry place — not in the cold refrigerator. Colder temperatures turn some of the potatoes’ starch into the sugars that combine with asparagine to make acrylamide.

Blanching raw potatoes before cooking decreases the sugar content.

Fried potatoes have the most acrylamide, followed by roasted and baked. Microwaved and boiled potatoes have none.

Choose thicker cut fries for less surface area exposed to high-heat cooking, and thinner chips for shorter cooking time and less heat needed to cook them.

High-heat roasting of almonds produces acrylamide; roasted cashews and peanuts have much less and raw nuts have none.

Acrylamide levels in foods vary widely depending on cooking time, temperature and manufacturer processing methods.

The most well-established nutrition advice to reduce risk of developing many cancers remains the same: Focus on eating whole foods with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein (lightly roasted or raw nuts, seeds, beans, fish, poultry, meat or dairy). Try the quinoa with cranberries and mint as an alternative to potatoes, or the chai oatmeal instead of your morning toast.

Both recipes are from the New Healthy Eating Cookbook by the American Cancer Society.

Quinoa salad with cranberries and mint

Serves: 5

Ingredients

1 cup quinoa rinsed and drained (or purchase pre-rinsed quinoa)

2 cups water

2 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced

¼ cup dried sweetened cranberries

¼ cup golden raisins

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup chopped pistachios

Directions

In a saucepan, combine the quinoa and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, stir to combine, cover, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender and the liquid is absorbed.

In a bowl, combine the quinoa, scallions, cranberries, raisins and mint.

In a bowl, combine the oil and lemon juice (or put into a jar and shake well). Drizzle the dressing over the salad to lightly coat and stir gently to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Top with the pistachios.

Nutrition information: Per serving: Calories 260, protein 7 g, carbohydrate 38 g, dietary fiber 5 g, fat 10 g, sodium (before seasoning) 15 mg.

Chai oatmeal

Serves: 2

Ingredients

2 cups low-fat milk

6 cardamom pods

5 whole cloves

4 black peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) oats

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Directions

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the milk, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, and vanilla. Simmer for 5 minutes, swirling the pan frequently. Strain and discard the solids. Return the milk to the saucepan, add the sugar, and simmer until the sugar dissolves. Add the oats and salt and simmer for 4-7 minutes, or until it reaches the desired consistency, stirring occasionally.

Nutrition information: Per serving: Calories 310, protein 14 g, carbohydrate 53 g, dietary fiber 4 g, fat 5 g, sodium 260 mg.

Sue Leifer is a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System.

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