burnt toast
Credit: © Martin Diebel / Getty Images

Turns out that “extra dark” setting on your toaster could be a death trap. In a new campaign, British officials are warning that browning toast and other starchy foods may be bad for your health – potentially unleashing a neurotoxin and carcinogen known as acrylamide.

Just how dangerous acrylamide is to humans remains a topic of debate. According to Smithsonian, the chemical was first found in foods in 2002 and has since received a “2A” classification by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, meaning it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” However, though high doses of acrylamide have been shown to increase the cancer risk in lab animals, the effects of more typical doses in humans have been less conclusive and are still being studied.

Still, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is concerned enough about the chemical that this week it launched a program called “Go for Gold” – a play on words that encourages people to attempt to reduce their acrylamide intake by aiming “for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread” instead of letting those foods brown. More specifically, the National Cancer Institute states that acrylamide forms naturally when certain starchy foods are exposed to temperatures over 248 degrees Fahrenheit, with longer cooking times increasing production of the chemical. The FSA also warns against keeping raw potatoes in the refrigerator which has also been shown to increase acrylamide levels.

Of course, cutting out every brown French fry isn’t necessarily the most practical task. So similar to when WHO announced that it had categorized processed meats as a “group 1” carcinogen back in late 2015, this campaign is more about raising awareness and encouraging risk aversion than about getting everyone to freak out and toss their toaster. “Our research indicates that the majority of people are not aware that acrylamide exists, or that they might be able to reduce their personal intake. We want our ‘Go for Gold’ campaign to highlight the issue so that consumers know how to make the small changes that may reduce their acrylamide consumption whilst still eating plenty of starchy carbohydrates and vegetables as recommended in government healthy eating advice,” said Steve Wearne, Director of Policy at the FSA. “Although there is more to know about the true extent of the acrylamide risk, there is an important job for Government, industry and others to do to help reduce acrylamide intake.”

Basically, if you accidentally burn your toast, it doesn’t sound like you necessarily have to throw it out. However, if you prefer your toast burnt, then it might be time to rethink how much you want to live on the wild side.