Orapi Asia

Understanding Formation of Carcinogens In Foods

reduce cancer risk from foods
In the pursuit of flavorful and appetising meals, we often engage in various cooking methods such as grilling, frying, barbecuing, smoking, and boiling. However, behind the sizzle and aroma, these culinary techniques can introduce potential health concerns. 
The heat applied during cooking gives rise to the formation of carcinogens, including Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs), Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs), and Acrylamides, which have been associated with increased risk of cancer. Neglecting the cleanliness of cooking utensils further compounds these risks, allowing residues to undergo chemical transformations during subsequent use. 
In this article, we look at the chemicals formed during popular cooking methods—turning normal foods to carcinogenic foods—and explore their impact on human health, and shed light on the overlooked dangers of not maintaining clean utensils.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

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What Are HCAs and PAHs

does grilled food cause cancer
Source: A vegetable to meat consumption ratio as a relevant factor determining cancer preventive diet. The Mediterranean versus other European countries

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemical compounds generated during the high-temperature cooking of muscle meat, such as beef, pork, fish, or poultry. This cooking process, which involves methods like pan frying or grilling over an open flame, leads to the formation of HCAs and PAHs.

In laboratory studies, both HCAs and PAHs have demonstrated mutagenic properties, meaning they induce changes in DNA through mutations, deletions, and insertions that may elevate the risk of cancer.

HCAs originate from the reaction of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and substances like creatine or creatinine (found in muscle) at elevated temperatures. On the other hand, PAHs are produced when fat and juices from meat are grilled directly over heat, or an open flame drip onto the surface or fire, resulting in flames and smoke. The smoke carries PAHs that adhere to the meat’s surface. Additionally, PAHs can form during alternative food preparation methods, such as the smoking of meats. 

Where Do HCAs and PAHs Come From

HCAs and PAHs From Cooking

carcinogenic burnt food

The development of HCAs and PAHs varies depending on the type of meat, cooking technique, and the degree of doneness (rare, medium, or well done). Regardless of the meat type, cooking at high temperatures, particularly above 100ºC (as in grilling or pan frying), or prolonged cooking tends to result in higher HCA formation. For instance, well-done, grilled, or barbecued chicken and steak exhibit elevated concentrations of HCAs. Cooking methods involving exposure to smoke contribute to the formation of PAHs. 

HCAs and PAHs Common Sources

In contrast, raw foods lack HCAs and PAHs. Over 90% of our exposure to these compounds comes from cooked food. Grilled/charred meats and fish are among the most concentrated sources, but ready-to-eat commercial breakfast cereals, processed carbohydrates, fats/oils, and tobacco smoke also contain substantial amounts of PAHs. PAHs in vegetables and fruits primarily result from environmental contamination of air and soil.

Four Factors That Play a Role In HCA Formation

  • Type of food
  • Cooking method
  • Temperature
  • Cooking duration

Temperature emerges as the crucial factor, with issues starting at 100ºC (212ºF) and significant HCA formation occurring around 300ºC (572ºF).

PAH Formation Is Influenced By

  • Cooking temperature
  • Cooking duration
  • Type of fuel used for heating
  • Distance from the heat source
  • The fat content of the food

Higher temperatures and longer cooking times increase HCA and PAH levels, turning normal foods into carcinogenic foods. Direct heat methods like frying and grilling yield more of these compounds compared to indirect heat methods such as stewing, steaming, or poaching.

Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs)

High heat from cooking DNA damage

What Are AGEs

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are the result of the Maillard reaction, a chemical process that occurs when sugars and proteins in food interact under heat, such as grilling a burger, toasting bread, or roasting a marshmallow. 
Despite enhancing the flavours and creating a caramel-like taste in foods, this reaction can compromise the nutritional value and generate toxic/carcinogenic byproducts, including AGEs, also known as mycotoxins.
Just as a warm marshmallow sticks to a wooden stick when roasted on a campfire, the formation of AGEs inside our bodies involves substances adhering together in a similar manner.

Health Damage

Once introduced into the body, AGEs exhibit detrimental effects on a wide range of cells, tissues, and organs, as illustrated in the accompanying diagram. Reducing circulating AGEs correlates with a diminished risk of various diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, kidney disorders, cardiovascular issues, and diabetes.

In animal models, AGEs have been linked to:

  • Inflammation
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Kidney damage
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Muscle loss
  • Cancer cell metastasis
  • Insulin resistance
  • Alterations in cell receptors
  • Reduced lifespan
  • Oxidation

Despite these findings, some argue that rodents, often used in studies, may not accurately reflect the impact of heated food on humans, positing that these animals aren’t accustomed to such dietary patterns. Approximately 10% of dietary AGEs are absorbed. Of this, roughly one-third is excreted in urine within three days, suggesting that a significant portion lingers in the body, potentially causing havoc.

Where Do AGEs Come From

carcinogens in burnt food
Source: Uribarri J, et al. Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet
AGEs may form internally through the ageing process and elevated blood sugar levels. However, we also ingest AGEs through our diet. Almost any food subjected to intense heat has the potential to produce AGEs.
Subjecting raw food to dry heat can significantly elevate its AGE content, ranging from 10 to 100 times. AGEs can also be generated through pasteurisation, drying, smoking, frying, microwaving, and grilling. Any food containing sugars, fats, and proteins is susceptible to AGE formation.
Diets rich in raw foods generally have lower levels of AGEs. 

What Can We Do About AGEs

The choice of food preparation methods plays a pivotal role, with heating foods beyond 446 degrees F (230 C) identified as particularly problematic. Consider the variance in AGE levels in a 90-gram chicken breast:

  • Frying, grilling, roasting, or broiling: 4000 to 9000 AGEs
  • Boiling, steaming, or stewing: 1000 AGEs

To immediately reduce AGE intake by 50%, opt for poaching, stewing, or steaming meals. This simple adjustment can lead to a 30% decrease in plasma AGE levels within a month.


does fried food cause cancer

What Is Acrylamide

Acrylamide emerges is a another byproduct of the Mallard reaction, occurring when asparagine interacts with naturally present sugars in high carbohydrate/low protein foods exposed to elevated cooking temperatures, with reactions initiating at 120ºC (248ºF).
Elevated cooking temperatures and prolonged cooking times intensify the formation of acrylamide. Acrylamide is commonly found in commercially prepared foods, persisting in items like French fries, potato chips, breakfast cereals, crackers, pretzels, coffee, pastries, and similar products upon purchase.

Where Does Acrylamide Come From

foods with acrylamide
Acrylamide can be found in both homemade and restaurant-prepared food, with substantial formation only occurring at temperatures exceeding 120ºC.
Diets with an abundance of baked or fried starchy foods tend to harbour elevated levels of acrylamide. Conversely, diets rich in animal products and raw plant-based foods typically exhibit lower acrylamide content.
In addition to dietary sources, exposure to acrylamide can occur through inhalation and absorption. Acrylamide is present in various products, including body lotions, shampoos, tobacco smoke, food packaging, and even human breast milk if the mother consumes acrylamide-containing substances.

Acrylamide Health Effects

It has been found through early animal research that acrylamide may have harmful effects on health, such as being genotoxic, carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and causing reproductive issues. This substance is currently classified as “probably carcinogenic.” However, human studies suggest that consuming acrylamide at current levels does not cause any significant neurotoxicity or increase the risk of cancer.
Developed countries have an estimated average intake of 0.3 to 2 μg acrylamide/kg body weight/day. The World Health Organization (WHO) has assessed that an adequate margin of safety for humans is 1-4 μg/kg body weight over a lifetime.

Carcinogenic Foods Residues

carcinogens in food residues
It is essential to clean cooking appliances, utensils, and surfaces after cooking to prevent the accumulation of food residues, fats, and other substances. Failure to do so can potentially lead to the formation of carcinogens in the food. 
As previously mentioned, high-temperature cooking can cause the formation of carcinogens in food. The residual matter left on utensils contains these carcinogens, and when subjected to another round of cooking, these harmful substances can not only multiply but also contaminate fresh batches of food turning them into carcinogenic foods. Therefore, cleaning utensils thoroughly and leaving no food residues behind to reduce exposure to carcinogens is important.

How To Clean Food Residues

how to clean bbq grill

Product of Choice

We recommend using an alkaline detergent cleaner designed to tackle various cleaning challenges associated with cooking residues. Use it to decarbonise, de-rust, and degrease your utensils to remove all stubborn deposits. 
Your product of choice should eliminate burnt oils, fats, greases, carbonised deposits, and rust from grills, ovens, fryers, pans, hoods, filters, and other cooking apparatus commonly found in food establishments, catering, and food processing industries. 

Cleaning Grills and Ovens

To effectively clean grills and ovens, follow these steps:

  • Preheat the oven or hot plate to a temperature between 40˚C and 60˚C.
  • Turn off the appliance.
  • Prepare a cleaning solution by mixing at a 1:10 ratio with water. Use an ORAPI Canyon sprayer for application.
  • Generously spray the cleaning solution onto the oven or hot plate surface.
  • Allow the solution to sit on the surface for 20-30 minutes.
  • For areas with heavy contamination, use a brush to agitate the solution.
  • Wipe off the surfaces with a wet rag.
  • Thoroughly rinse the cleaned surfaces with potable water to ensure they are residue-free. 


Grill & Oven Cleaner
ALKAKLEEN is an alkaline detergent cleaner formulated for effective decarbonising, de-rusting and degreasing operations. 
ALKAKLEEN quickly penetrates to remove burnt oils, fats, greases, carbonised deposits and rust from surfaces.

Conclusion: Carcinogenic Foods

It’s important to acknowledge the potential health risks associated with high-temperature cooking methods. Carcinogens like Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs), Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs), and Acrylamide can form during cooking and have detrimental effects on human health, including an increased risk of cancer. Maintaining clean utensils and adopting healthier cooking methods can help minimise these risks and prevent you from consuming overcooked or burnt carcinogenic foods.

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