Are burnt foods really bad for you — and why do we love them so much?

We love our food charred, grilled, burnt and blackened — but is it causing cancer?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 6, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Barbequed chicken (Getty Images/istetiana)
Barbequed chicken (Getty Images/istetiana)

Should I be worried about Dave Grohl? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame great turned up last month at a homeless shelter in Northridge with his smoker and a whole lot of meat — and proceeded to barbecue for 450 unhoused Californians in the midst of a massive storm. The big-hearted Food Fighter, who told Bon Appetit in 2019 that he's "hooked" on barbecuing, reportedly then inquired about when he might return for an encore. But if recent renewed concerns over the health risks of burnt food are to be believed, should he bring a big sous vide next time instead?

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The allure of smoky, crispy, blacked, charred food is something plenty of us can relate to. Forget salty vs. sweet — my vote, always, will be burnt. You will have to pry my blowtorch out of my cold, dead, singed hands. Yet as Jessica Bradley wrote in February for BBC Future, "That habit of scraping the burnt bits off your toast might not be such a bad idea." Bradley was noting the longstanding — and contradictory — research into the potential carcinogenic effects of eating food that has been cooked at high heat. 

"You will have to pry my blowtorch out of my cold, dead, singed hands."

Registered dietitian Brittany Lubeck and consultant for Oh So Spotless, explains the controversy. "When food is cooked at high temperatures (frying, roasting, baking), a substance called acrylamide may form. The formation of acrylamide is natural. According to the FDA, some animal research has shown that acrylamide causes cancer." The Department of Health and Human Services's National Toxicology Program classifies acrylamide as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." But research on rodents exposed them to far higher levels of the compound than humans would consume, and evidence suggests animals also metabolize acrylamide differently than we do.

Wendy Lord, a registered dietitian and consultant for Sensible Digs, also notes that not all burned foods are created equal. "Eating a piece of chargrilled steak is not the same as eating a slice of burnt toast," she says. "The char on the food may appear similar; however, it is made up of complex chemicals. Carbohydrate foods such as bread, potatoes, and root vegetables contain sugars and an amino acid called asparagine, which react with each other when exposed to heat, forming acrylamide.... Therefore, if you have a high risk of developing cancer, such as having a family history of cancer, it is recommended that you limit your intake of browned and charred carbohydrate foods such as burnt toast, roast potatoes, and grilled root vegetables."

She continues, "Of greater concern are the carcinogens produced when animal protein foods such as meat and chicken are exposed to high temperatures during cooking, producing a char on the surfaces of the meat to create a carcinogenic chemical called heterocyclic aromatic amine." She recommends, "Limit the amount of grilled meat you eat, both in frequency and quantity. Instead, you can cook your meat using different cooking methods, such as steaming or boiling, which don't result in the browning of the meat."

Okay, I enjoy a steamed and boiled situation just fine, but my heart will always want to throw that thing under the broiler. What is the deep power that burnt food has over us? Well, for starters, there's the incredible flavor. "The main reason that food tastes better when cooked on high heat is due to the Maillard Reaction," explains chef Ron Stewart, founder of ChefRon. "This chemical reaction occurs when proteins in the food react with carbohydrates at temperatures above 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This reaction causes sugars to caramelize, and gives off an intensely flavorful and complex taste with subtle hints of smoky umami." And that smokiness lends incredible depth and balance to a variety of foods. The sugars make a beautifully cooked steak a little sweeter, while the smokiness makes a creme brûlée decadently complex.

Our attachment to burnt food is emotional and often, nostalgic. "Adding charr to meat gives it a nice flavor, one that reminds us of summer cookouts," says Shawn Hill, pitmaster and founder of The Grilling Dad. Brittany Lubek, meanwhile, sees the novelty appeal in browned foods. "Some could argue that the Maillard reaction improves the flavor," she says. "We may love these flavors so much simply because they're unique and not experienced daily."

"The answer to this one is pretty much primal, at least my end of it."

But for Chip Carter, host of Rural Media's "Where The Food Comes From," "The answer to this one is pretty much primal, at least my end of it," As Carter tells it, that love of burnt food imprinted on us at the dawn of civiliation and the harnessing of fire. "One glorious day one of our long-lost forebears came into a clearing or forest after a wildfire or lightning strike. And something smelled amazing. Smelled a lot like... well, barbecue," he says. "We had discovered cooking."

"That accidental barbecue not only tasted great," he says, "it was a lot easier to eat. It also lasted longer than a decomposing carcass (so you didn't have to eat that ancient antelope in one sitting). Our sense of smell quickly became attuned to search for that charred aroma — because it meant a quick, easy, delicious, sustaining meal and maybe even leftovers. Once we learned to control fire, humans advanced rapidly." It's the story of humanity — it starts with a nice carcass on an open flame, and the next thing you know, blam, pyramids, printing presses, Netflix. 

You're never going to find any nutritional value in a pile of ashes, and the research on the potential hazards of burnt foods indicates there's still a lot we don't yet know. As in all things, basic moderation and a sensible lifestyle will likely have a bigger impact than swearing off the burnt ends. "One of the best things you can do to decrease your cancer risk is to follow an overall healthy and well-balanced diet," reassures Brittany Lubeck. "You have nothing to worry about if you eat burnt toast here and there." Or if Dave Grohl and his smoker show up at your next gathering. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Cancer Dave Grohl Explainer Maillard Reaction