The food you eat has a direct impact on your health.
But it’s not always clear whether a particular food is harmful, healthful, neither, or both.
For example, you may have heard that eating burnt toast and other overcooked foods can increase cancer risk.
Is there evidence to support this claim?
The Suspected Chemical Compound
The link between burnt toast and cancer stems from a substance called acrylamide.
Acrylamide is a chemical that forms when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures, such as when they’re baked, fried, or roasted.
This includes toast, fries, and chips. The more cooked and burned they are, the higher the acrylamide content.
Acrylamide is also found in industrial settings, where it’s used to make products like plastics, paper, dyes, textiles, cosmetics, and adhesives. Most cases of high acrylamide exposure come from workers in these environments.
It is also found in tobacco smoke.
Acrylamide and Cancer?
Acrylamide is known to be neurotoxic, and it can be hazardous for people who are exposed to high levels of it in an industrial setting.
But dietary exposure to the acrylamide in food is significantly lower and may not pose the same risks.
There’s evidence that acrylamide may increase the risk of cancer in rodents, but it’s not clear if this is also true for humans.
When it comes to human studies, the evidence is mixed.
Some observational studies have found an increased risk of certain types of cancer with higher dietary acrylamide intake, while other studies have not.
It’s important to remember that observational studies can only show an association, not cause and effect.
And many other factors can affect the risk of cancer. The foods that tend to be higher in acrylamide, such as fried foods, may contribute to obesity and other risk factors associated with the development and spread of cancer.
Overall, various health organizations categorize acrylamide as:
- “probable human carcinogen” – International Agency for Research on Cancer
- “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” – US National Toxicology Program
- “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” – US Environmental Protection Agency
These determinations are based on animal studies and may not accurately reflect the risks of common dietary exposure to acrylamide in food.
Should You Avoid Eating Burnt Toast?
It appears very unlikely that a slice or two of burnt toast will increase your cancer risk, especially if you generally eat a healthful diet.
But you also don’t need to eat it. It’s not exactly health-promoting either.
If you are concerned about your acrylamide intake, you can take steps to reduce it by:
- avoiding or limiting burnt or charred foods
- cooking at lower temperatures
- choosing healthier cooking methods, such as steaming or boiling
- avoiding or limiting fried foods
It’s also important to eat plenty of cancer-preventative foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
These foods contain nutrients that may help protect against cancer.