Is burnt food really bad for you – and why do we love it so much?

Should I be worried about Dave Grohl? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame great showed up at a homeless shelter in Northridge last month with his smoker and lots of meat – and hosted a barbecue for 450 homeless Californians amid a huge storm. The big-hearted Food Fighter, who told Bon Appétit in 2019 that he was “addicted” to barbecue, then reportedly asked when he could return for an encore. But if recent renewed concerns about the health risks of burnt food are to be believed, should it bring a big sous vide next time instead?

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The lure of smoky, crispy, blackened and charred foods is something many of us can relate to. Forget the salty versus the sweet – my vote, always, will be burned. You will have to snatch my torch from my cold, dead, burnt hands. Still, 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 conflicting – research on the potential carcinogenic effects of eating foods cooked over high heat.

“You will have to snatch my blowtorch from my cold, dead, burnt hands.”

Registered dietitian Brittany Lubeck and consultant for Oh So Spotless, explains the controversy. “When foods are cooked at high temperatures (frying, roasting, baking), a substance called acrylamide can be formed. 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’ National Toxicology Program classifies acrylamide as “reasonably likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” But rodent research has exposed them to far higher levels of the compound than humans would consume, and evidence suggests that animals also metabolize acrylamide differently than we do.

Wendy Lord, registered dietitian and consultant for Sensible Digs, also notes that not all burnt foods are created equal. “Eating a piece of grilled steak is not the same as eating a slice of toast,” she says. “Char on food may look similar; however, it is made up of complex chemicals. Carbohydrate foods such as breads, 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 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: “Carcinogens produced when animal protein foods such as meat and chicken are exposed to high temperatures during cooking are of greater concern, producing shading on meat surfaces to create a chemical carcinogen 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, that don’t cause the meat to brown.

Okay, I really enjoy a steamed and boiled situation, but my heart will always want to throw this thing under the broiler. What is the profound power that burnt food has over us? Well, for starters, there’s the amazing flavor. “The main reason food tastes better when cooked over high heat is due to the Maillard reaction,” says chef Ron Stewart, founder of ChefRon. “This chemical reaction occurs when proteins in foods react with carbohydrates at temperatures above 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This reaction causes the sugars to caramelize and releases an intensely savory and complex taste with subtle smoky umami notes.” And this smoke brings incredible depth and balance to a variety of foods. The sugars make a beautifully cooked steak a little sweeter, while the smoke makes a creme brulee complex and decadent.

Our attachment to burnt food is emotional and often nostalgic. “Adding arctic char to meat gives it a nice flavor, which reminds us of summer barbecues,” says Shawn Hill, pitmaster and founder of The Grilling Dad. Brittany Lubek, meanwhile, sees the appeal of novelty in golden foods. “Some might argue that the Maillard reaction improves flavor,” she says. “Perhaps we love these flavors so much simply because they are unique and not experienced on a daily basis.”

“The answer to this one is pretty much primal, at least on my part.”

But for Chip Carter, host of Rural Media’s “Where The Food Comes From” show, “The answer to that question is pretty much primary, at least my end,” as Carter puts it, that love of burnt food imprinted us at the dawn of civilization and the mastery of fire. “One glorious day, one of our long-lost ancestors walked into a clearing or forest after a wildfire or a lightning strike. And something smelled amazing. It smelled a lot like… well, the barbecue,” he said. “We had discovered the kitchen.”

“That accidental barbecue was not only delicious,” he says, “it was much easier to eat. It also lasted longer than a rotting carcass (so you didn’t have to eat that ancient antelope in one go). Our sense of smell quickly adapted to seeking out that charred aroma – because it meant a quick, easy, delicious, long-lasting meal and maybe even leftovers. fire, humans progressed rapidly This is the story of mankind – it starts with a beautiful carcass over an open flame, and next thing you know, blam, pyramids, printing presses, Netflix.

You’ll never find any nutritional value in a pile of ashes, and research into the potential dangers of burnt foods indicates that there’s still a lot we don’t know yet. As with all things, basic moderation and a sensible lifestyle will likely have a bigger impact than swearing burnt ends. “One of the best things you can do to lower your risk of cancer is to eat an overall healthy, balanced diet,” says 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 meeting.

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