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Burned or Browned Foods

Posted by Manuela Boyle on 6 October 2022
Burned or Browned Foods

Have you ever left a meal in the oven for too long or set the toaster too high? Maybe you’ve fried something in a pan and really fried it. Burning food is a common occurrence — but can these seemingly minor incidents put you at an increased risk of developing cancer?

Carcinogens in foods
Certain foods, when cooked at a high temperature, form natural chemicals that are classified as probable carcinogens, but studies suggest that these “likely” carcinogens are actually unlikely to cause the most common types of cancer.

The concern around burnt food increasing the risk of cancer relates to the chemicals that form when food is overcooked or burnt:

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)

The two most prevalent food groups affected are starchy foods and meat.

Here’s a closer look at these chemicals and the level of risk they potentially impose:

The chemical most commonly found in starchy foods is acrylamide. Acrylamide is a chemical found in a variety of places, including construction, cosmetics, and food packaging. Acrylamide forms naturally from chemical reactions in certain types of starchy foods when they are cooked at a high temperature to the extent of turning dark brown. Some foods have a higher level of acrylamide, such as:

French fries
Potato chips
Foods made from grains (breakfast cereals, cookies, and toast)

*According to a study conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund, there is no strong evidence of a link between eating overcooked starchy food and increased cancer risk. 

PAHs and HCAs
When it comes to cooking meat, there are two different chemicals that occur when meat is cooked. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when fat and juices drip onto flames while frying, baking, or grilling meat. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are generated from reactions between molecules including amino acids and sugars. HCAs form when meat is exposed to high temperatures for a prolonged period of time; the longer the exposure, the more HCAs are formed.  

How can you cook food to avoid carcinogens?
Limit certain cooking methods such as frying and deep-frying
Soak raw potato slices in water and dab dry before frying or roasting
Avoid storing potatoes in the refrigerator; this can result in increased acrylamide levels during cooking
Avoid direct exposure of meat to an open flame and keep the duration of cooking times as brief as you can (especially at high temperatures)
Flip sides often when cooking
Remove charred portions of meat before eating
Refrain from using gravy made from meat drippings
Enjoy grilling vegetables, tofu and other plant-based proteins or meat alternatives as these do not carry the same risk of formation of HCAs and PAHs as meat

Boosting your intake of colourful fruits and vegetables is an excellent way to help eat a balanced diet and nourish your body with immune supportive nutrients.


Author:Manuela Boyle
Tags:NewsPrevention & RecoveryFood as MedicineWellness


  • The Institute for Functional Medicine
  • Society for Integrative Oncology
  • Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia
  • Australian Traditional-Medicine Society
  • British Naturopathic Association