My year of eating dangerously

Times Staff Writer

Are you beginning to get the feeling that every time you pick up the newspaper, turn on the radio or television or click on an e-mail, you’ll learn about a new food scare?

In recent weeks alone, we’ve heard there’s too much mercury in canned albacore tuna, too many PCBs in farm-raised salmon and too much acrylamide in French fries.

Cancer, cancer everywhere and not a bite to eat. In fact, I half-expect to see bumper stickers any day now with the message “Eating Anything Could Be Hazardous to Your Health.” Or, more simply, “Food Kills.”


My family and I were on our way to lunch with a couple of friends two weeks ago when their sophisticated and otherwise intelligent 10-year-old son suddenly announced, “I won’t be having any beef.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“MCD,” he whispered.


“Mad cow disease.”


When I told the young chap that I’d had veal kidneys -- rare -- the night before and that our son Lucas, four years his senior, had ordered steak tartare for dinner twice in the previous four nights, the kid’s eyes got so big I thought he was either going to expire on the spot or have me arrested for child endangerment.

Gimme a break.

Life is too short to spend it fretting over everything we put in our mouths. As John Mortimer, the British novelist and playwright, once put it, “I refuse to spend my life worrying about what I eat. There is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward.”

Turkey burgers? Soy substitutes? Low-carb diets? Tofu pups instead of pork sausage in choucroute? (That was the bright idea of my cousins at a recent family dinner.)

Not me, babe. I subscribe more to the view that Irish coffee is wonderful because it provides, in one glass, all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat.

Don’t get me wrong. There are real dangers out there in the land of the Brie and the home of the crave, and one would be foolish to ignore them. I won’t order oysters from the Gulf of Mexico in the warm summer months at some dive where proper refrigeration is about as likely as a wine list with a vertical of Chateau Lafite. Nor do I eat my chicken rare. And since my father had high cholesterol, suffered his first heart attack at 38 and died at 62, I try to exercise common sense in my consumption of cholesterol-laden foods, especially red meat.


But when I do eat red meat, I eat it rare -- and I’m sick and tired of walking into restaurants that refuse to make a rare hamburger. Whenever a waiter tells me that company policy prohibits it “because of E. coli O157:H7,” I get up and walk out, usually muttering, “Yeah, and E=MC2 to you too, pal.”

I believe in moderation in everything -- including moderation. The risk of cancer supposedly increases if you eat more than one 8-ounce fillet of farm-raised salmon a month, for example. But how much is that increased risk? What does it really mean? As I understand the statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, the risk goes up by one in 100,000 if you eat that 8-ounce farmed salmon fillet once a month for 70 years. By contrast, the risk of getting a fatal heart attack is about one in 400.

Trevor Butterworth, editor of the website for STATS (Statistical Assessment Service), a sister organization of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, says that according to EPA figures, if everyone in the United States ate one farm-raised salmon fillet a month, that would result in 3,000 more cancer deaths over 70 years.

Given that more than 40,000 people die in traffic accidents in this country every year, that doesn’t exactly seem like a rampant epidemic, does it?

Eating can be -- should be -- one of the great pleasures in life. Most of us -- unless we’re poor or anorexic -- do it three times a day. Why should we let others, no matter how well meaning, make mealtime feel like a round of Russian roulette? Folks like those at the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- the same outfit that called fettuccine Alfredo “a heart attack on a plate” -- have warned us off popcorn, hamburgers, kung pao chicken, submarine sandwiches and chiles rellenos, among other things. Next stop? Tangerines? (You could choke on the seeds.)

The Great French Fry Scare made Page 1 of The Times last week, beneath a secondary headline that said, “Health officials worry about acrylamide, but don’t want to create a needless cancer scare.”


Of course not. But just how much of the acrylamide that appears in French fries (and other foods) must one consume for it to be dangerous?

Lorelei Mucci of the Harvard School of Public Health is part of a team studying the health effects of dietary acrylamide in Sweden, and in two studies just published, the researchers found no link between acrylamide and colon, rectal, bladder or kidney cancer -- the cancers most likely to occur from it -- even among those who consumed the most French fries and potato chips, the two foods highest in acrylamide.

In fact, the 25% of the test groups who consumed the most acrylamide had a 40% lower risk of colon cancer than the 25% who consumed the least.

The health warnings that preceded these studies were based largely on animal studies, Mucci said when I called her last week, and many of those animals were exposed to 50,000 micrograms of acrylamide a day, whereas humans typically consume only about 25 to 35 micrograms a day (statistics that appeared deep in last week’s Times story).

Even if you double that daily intake to 70 micrograms, Mucci told me, the cancer risk for the average person, in a lifetime, would increase from 30% -- the risk we all face -- to 30.01%. The “increase” might actually be even smaller, or not exist, Mucci said, since “we don’t really know enough yet about how the human body metabolizes acrylamide.”

What’s safe?

That’s the problem with virtually all these food safety scares, of course. Scientific findings seem to fluctuate almost daily, and confusion and conflict reign supreme. Individually, the science behind many of the scares is dubious; cumulatively, they could be as paralyzing as they are discouraging. Salmon is rich in Omega-3 oils, which help fight heart disease, but now it’s supposed to have PCBs, which cause cancer.


Great. Flip a coin. What do you worry about more -- your tickers or your tumors?

Over the years, caffeine has been variously reported to cause cancer, to inhibit conception, to induce miscarriage, to cause birth defects, to increase cholesterol, to trigger irregular heartbeats, to aggravate ulcers and to increase urination.

But caffeine has also been reported to help people lose weight, improve hand-eye coordination, increase tolerance for exercise, promote clearer thinking, diminish drowsiness, make children more attentive in school and make adults less likely to suffer bronchial asthma -- or to commit suicide. And Mucci says caffeine is also known to “lower the risk of colorectal cancer.”

Remember the Alar-on-apples scare of a decade ago, when “60 Minutes” called it “the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply”? School boards from Los Angeles to New York banned apples and apple products from their cafeterias after congressional testimony on the dangers of Alar by that eminent epidemiologist Meryl Streep.

Well, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and Britain’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides concluded that the risk of getting cancer from the small amount of Alar used on apples was minuscule. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, said Alar-treated apple products “posed no hazards to the health of children or adults.”

So why do food scares take hold so quickly -- and so often -- in this country?

“Americans have been and continue to be very confused about what they should be eating to maintain their health and their figures,” says Barry Glass- ner, a USC sociologist and the author of the 1999 book “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.”

Glassner, who’s now working on a book about what he terms “American food beliefs,” says that in a culture where “people have a long-established culinary tradition that they’re fairly comfortable with, you don’t see this so much. It’s hard to imagine the French population being transfixed by very many of these scares that so preoccupy Americans.”


Quite so. And I suppose it’s the ultimate irony that this has been an especially tough year or so for French fries. First, congressional cafeterias decide to rename them “freedom fries” to punish France for refusing to join President Bush’s war in Iraq; now we’re told that French fries may cause cancer. But acrylamide aside, everyone knows that fries, by whatever name, aren’t good for you; they have high levels of fat and can contribute to obesity and heart disease. So, again, moderation and common sense -- not cancer -- should be our watchwords.

Or as Mark Twain put it, “Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”

David Shaw can be reached at To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to