Is Eating Burned Food Bad For You?

There’s something about a grill that can make any type of food irresistibly lip-smacking, whether you’re a carnivorous Paleo eater or strict vegan. But while our love for barbecue may be universal, it also may be putting our health at risk.

Many studies have shown that there is a significant link between cancer and burned or charred food. The blackened parts of grilled or roasted food are a source of carcinogens, which can damage DNA and eventually lead to cancer-causing mutations. Direct cooking over high temperatures also releases toxic chemicals into the food. 1


What Happens When You Grill Food

When burned or charred, meats are especially prone to forming carcinogenic chemicals. Even vegetarians aren’t totally out of the clear: Cottage cheese and tofu are also known to release similar amounts of carcinogens. When proteins are heated to a point of charring (be it via pan frying, grilling, or cooking over an open flame), chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are released into the food. In lab experiments, HCAs and PAHs were proven to be mutagenic, that is, causing changes in the DNA and, consequently, leading to cancer.

HCAs and PAHs were also found to cause cancer in animals in several experiments. Rodents that were fed HCA-supplemented foods developed tumors in the breast, colon, liver, skin, lungs, and prostate glands, while those fed with PAH-supplemented foods developed blood cancers like leukemia. Incidentally, PAHs are also found in cigarette smoke and are linked to lung cancer. 2


Starchy foods, meanwhile, can be victim to a toxin called acrylamide, which has also been linked to cancer. This chemical is usually formed when foods like grains or potatoes are cooked at temperatures above 250°F (think: french fries, chips, and burned toast). Frying, baking, roasting, or grilling is more likely to lead to acrylamide formation than boiling, steaming, or microwaving. And while the data is still inconclusive, the EPA classifies acrylamide as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” based on the results of studies involving lab animals. 3

Best Practices for Safe Grilling and Barbecuing

Knowing all this, do you dare go back to that beloved barbecue? Yes, go for it! Just be a little more mindful of how you use it. There are several tricks to avoid or at least limit your exposure to the carcinogenic chemicals ingested via burned or charred food. 4

  • Avoid grilling, baking, and direct cooking at very high temperatures. If you’re craving a kebab, cook it on a medium flame.
  • Slather a sufficient amount of oil or butter on foods like meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, and cheese to prevent sticking and burning while cooking.
  • Keep your oven and grill squeaky clean. Scrub off any residue so you don’t transfer leftover burned bits to your fresh food.
  • Cut out or scrape off any burned parts of your food, and discard before eating.
  • Avoid foods cooked directly over charcoal — as tempting as that grilled, slightly blackened corn on the cob may be.
  • When you are cooking something directly over the flame, keep turning the food over frequently to prevent one side from getting exposed to high temperatures.
  • Opt for alternative cooking methods like baking, boiling, or steaming as much as possible. Slow cooking is the best way to preserve essential vitamins and minerals without releasing harmful toxins.
  • A good way to avoid excess production of HCAs and PAHs is to marinate the food with ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar, soy sauce, lemon or orange zest, yogurt, mayonnaise, mustard, or olive oil.

So, while you don’t have to give up that tempting barbecue completely, do remember that moderation is key. And there are plenty of safer — and just as delicious — ways to cook your food to avoid harmful toxins. Happy and safe eating!