burnt toast with sad face carved out of it placed on a plate

Ever grill up some burgers or fry some bacon that gets a little too crispy? Or maybe that toasted cheese sandwich or roasted potatoes are a little burned, but you enjoy it anyways.

Chances are pretty good you’ve eaten something burnt, charred, or even just a little crips around the edges. Maybe you take the last bite and wonder:

Can burnt food cause cancer? Here’s what you need to know:

The Culprit: Acrylamide

You know that crispy, charred, blackness of burnt food? It’s caused by a chemical called acrylamide that forms when certain foods are cooked at high temperatures.(1) Some foods that burn easily include:

  • Potatoes
  • French fries
  • Bread
  • Coffee
  • Grains

Beware of HCAs and PAHs

Acrylamide isn’t the only potential cancer-causing concern related to cooking.

There are other compounds to consider, too: (2)

  • Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

These compounds are formed when meat, poultry, or fish are cooked at high temperatures, especially when they’re exposed to open flames or smoke.

Burnt Food & Cancer Risk

Some research suggests that eating higher amounts of burnt food (acrylamide) may increase the risk for certain types of cancer, including: (3)

  • Ovarian cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Digestive system cancer
  • Renal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Respiratory system cancer

While acrylamide may cause certain types of cancer, the body is good at removing it. That means eating the occasional meal with burnt food, probably won’t raise your risk for cancer. But if you eat burnt food frequently, it may be time to turn down the heat.

How to Cook Healthier

Even though the risks for cancer caused by eating burnt food are minimal, it doesn’t hurt to take some precautions. You can reduce the formation of harmful chemicals in cooked food by adopting healthier methods. (4)

  • When cooking starchy foods like potatoes, try soaking them in water for a bit before frying or roasting.
  • If you love grilling or barbecuing, use aluminum foil as a barrier between your food and the flames
  • Marinate your meat with mixtures containing herbs, spices, and acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice before cooking.
  • Keep an eye on cooking time and temperature. Overcooking or burning food increases acrylamide levels, so it’s a good idea to avoid excessively crispy or charred bits.

Bottom line: The occasional burnt French fry or well-done steak is unlikely to pose a significant cancer risk.

But if you eat a lot of burnt food, it may be time to turn down the temperature, pay closer attention to your food when cooking, and make some simple changes to your diet to eat healthier.

References

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2022). Acrylamide Questions and Answers. From: https://www.fda.gov/food/process-contaminants-food/acrylamide-questions-and-answers
  2. National Cancer Institute. (2017). Chemicals in meat cooked at high temperatures and cancer risk. From: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet
  3. Basaran, B., et al. (2023). Dietary acrylamide exposure and cancer risk. A systematic approach to human epidemiological studies. Foods, 12(2): 346. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9858116/
  4. European Food Information Council. (2019). How to reduce acrylamide formation at home. From: https://www.eufic.org/en/food-safety/article/acrylamide-infographic-how-to-reduce-acrylamide-formation-at-home

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