Does Burned Food Really Give You Cancer?


Acrylamide is a chemical molecule that forms when food is cooked at high temperatures. However, while it is known to be a potential carcinogen and toxin in its industrial form, it is less clear what the link is between consuming it in food and developing cancer.


Almost 20 years ago, construction workers building a tunnel going through the Hallandsåsridge on southern Sweden’s Bjäre peninsula noticed that nearby cows were showing strange symptoms, staggering, collapsing, and some even dying. An investigation showed that they had been drinking contaminated water from a stream, and that the contamination was from acrylamide.

The workers were using its polymer,polyacrylamide, as a sealant for cracks. This was safe. However, the polymer-forming reaction was not complete, causing some unreacted acrylamide to still be present.

How is acrylamide formed?

Both the workers and a control group who had no known exposure to industrial acrylamide had their blood tested, and both had unsafe amounts of acrylamide. The chemical was then found in fried potatoes, coffee, and especially in carbohydrate-rich foods but not  protein-rich ones. It was foods that had been heated above 250°F, that is roasted, fried, or baked. However, it was thought that Acrylamide must always have been formed in this type of cooking ever since the invention of cooking. It isn’t found in uncooked or boiled food and less likely in meat, dairy, and fish. It doesn’t matter if the food is “organic” because it is the type of food that counts.

Other chemicals in meat

Of concern are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), formed when meat juices and fat drip onto flames, and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) from reactions between molecules including sugars and amino-acids.

How should food be cooked, and is it a carcinogen?

Cook food until it goes yellow but not brown or black. This restricts the formation of acrylamide. Although scientists identified the source of acrylamide, they haven’t been able to definitely establish that it is a carcinogen for humans when consumed at levels normally found in cooked food.

A 2015 review of data came to the conclusion that “dietary acrylamide is not related to the risk of most common cancers”. However, it did add that a modest association for ovarian, kidney, and endometrial cancers in people who had never smoked could not be ruled out.

Some studies have shown that meat that has been fried, burned, or barbecued has a higher possibility of certain cancers, but these links are hard to prove.

What should you do?

If you have concerns, you can reduce exposure by cooking in a microwave oven instead of over flames and regularly turning the meat. The food may not be as tasty because grilling, toasting or baking produce many molecules that enhance flavor. Also, marinating meats in beer before grilling them helps to reduce levels of cancer-causing compounds

Eat less meat or use vegetables instead to replace the meat when grilling. If you have a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit, and whole grain food, none of those contain acrylamide.

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