Research surrounding the health effects of overcooked toast and roast foods hit the headlines again last week, when the Food Standards Agency launched their ‘Go for Gold’ campaign, urging people to modify cooking methods to reduce their exposure to chemical compounds called acrylamides.

Acrylamides form when molecules in foods, especially sugar molecules, are altered by high temperatures. Eating these molecules on a regular basis can increase your risk of developing cancer.

One of the most common reactions that produces acrylamides is the Maillard Reaction – also known as food browning. At temperatures above 140°C / 285°F protein and sugar molecules react to produce new flavour and colour compounds. Caramelization is similar, but this only occurs with sugars.

Various products utilise the browning reaction, including toast, roast meat, dried and condensed milk, coffee, beer, and strangely enough, self-tanning products!

Exactly how the flavour and colour compounds develop is influenced by the temperature, time of cooking, water content of the foods, and the types of proteins and sugars present.

Because browning damages the proteins, it can affect the protein quality of the food. This is less of a problem with meats and fish as they have a high protein content to begin with. Cereals and bread are more affected as they have a lower protein value.

What does all this mean for our health? Is this just another scare story designed to make us even more confused about what to eat?

The results do need to be kept in perspective. Acrylamides can contribute towards an increased risk of developing cancer, but no more than other risks such as obesity, smoking, stress, and lack of exercise. And like these other risks, it is modifiable – it is a problem that we can act upon.

Firstly, foods that have concentrated sources of acrylamides are fried, grilled or barbequed meats with a well-cooked crust. Crisps, French fries, and processed cereals are other key sources. Limiting your intake of these foods reduces your exposure and any associated health risks.

Storing potatoes and parsnips in the fridge allows their sugars to develop and be more prone to acrylamide formation so again, take steps to store these foods differently. Few homes have a cold pantry these days, but a cold storage cupboard, utility room or garage is suitable.

Cooking foods at lower temperatures, or adding a splash of water to the frying pan reduces acrylamide formation: slow cookers are an excellent way to cook meats as the temperature is low and there is plenty of moisture present.

Colourful vegetables and fruits provide a vast array of antioxidant nutrients which can protect our cells from harm, and reduce the negative effects of acrylamides. Include a range of vegetables with each meal – especially alongside barbequed or roasted meats – to give your body the tools it needs to deal with these compounds. Adding peas, sweetcorn, tomatoes, steamed carrots and broccoli to your beef and potatoes keeps Sunday roast on the menu in the most health-full way.

- Sally Duffin is a nutritional therapist and writer based in Holgate, York.