Is burnt food really carcinogenic?

If you just had to wait an hour for that hamburger at a grill, you’ll end up with a black lump of meat on your plate. Can you still eat it, or is it too unhealthy and you’d better throw it in the trash? How bad is burnt food for you?

Crispy crust on your food turns to soot

When you place a sausage on the grill, it absorbs the heat from the glowing coals. This heat ensures that the sausage itself heats up and cooks, which kills bacteria. In addition, the heat gives the delicious crispy crust via the so-called Maillard reaction.

If the sausage is left for too long, or the grill is too hot, the sausage will not be able to absorb the heat properly. Then the carbon in the sausage burns and creates carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The carbon dioxide escapes as gas into the air, and carbon monoxide (CO) remains on the piece of food. A wide range of other unhealthy substances adhere to these tiny burnt carbon particles and together they form the black layer we call soot.

Soot particles cause diseases

Soot is carcinogenic. In fact, in the late 18th century, pioneering health researcher Percival Potts noted that so many young chimney sweeps were battling testicular cancer. He was the first to demonstrate that cancer can be caused by carcinogens in the patients’ environment, in this case the soot in chimneys.

When chimney sweeps started wearing protective clothing, the number of cancer patients in the profession fell sharply. Even today, soot is high on the list of harmful substances. For example, soot particles in the air can penetrate through your lungs into your bloodstream and thus cause cardiovascular disease and cancer. Simply put, soot is something you don’t want to be around, let alone eat.

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Slurping, scraping or scraping?


What makes burnt food so bad for your health?

So what exactly is in the black sweat layer that is so bad for us? Many, but mainly three things. Firstly, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and in particular the substance benzopyrene. It is also in cigarette smoke and fumes from wood stoves. So be careful.

In addition, you will also find a lot of acrylamide in soot, another carcinogen. This is also present in fried and baked foods, just too little to suit bumble bees. But if you push burgers covered with soot inside, the amount of acrylamide can be disastrous.

Finally, soot is chock full of so-called heterocyclic amines. It was once proteins that were exposed to an excessively high temperature. A chemical reaction occurred where the proteins changed into this carcinogenic substance that is often found on the outside of burnt food.

It is impossible to say exactly how unhealthy a bite of soot is. No scientist has ever let a few thousand people eat soot alone for a month. What we do know for sure is that soot is full of (intestinal) carcinogens, so the less you consume the better.

Cancer-free cooking

4 tips for the least carcinogenic grilling or cooking experience:

  • Avoid a blackened pork chop by only throwing the piece of meat on the grill when the flames are no longer coming out of the coals and turning it regularly.
  • You can also ingest the harmful substances by, for example, standing in the smoke from a barbecue, so try to avoid this smoke. The bonus is that you won’t smell like an ashtray for the rest of the day.
  • Of course, you don’t want to just eat a scoop from the bucket of Russian salad, then get served a piece of chicken that’s only partially black? Then peel off the black pieces. The same applies to bread from the toaster. A little black can be scraped off. Jet black = throw away.
  • To avoid burning when cooking in a pan with oil: Press the handle of a wooden spoon down into the bottom of the pan, into the oil. If bubbles form around the wood, the oil is hot enough to throw the food into the pan. Do not heat the oil further, otherwise you risk burning!

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