Why burning is the fiercest trend in food

You don’t need to be a world-class chef to know that burning food isn't usually the aim of cooking dinner. So why are top restaurants featuring burnt food on their prized menus and could it be dangerous?

If you’re one of those people who accidently burns just about everything, congratulations – you’re trendy!

Burning food has long been taboo in the UK, a sign of a bad or neglectful cook. Burnt food is bitter, ashy and a no-go for many of us. But there are those who can’t get enough of the sometimes smoky and almost astringent taste. The lure of the dark side has become too strong to ignore and you can probably find 'burnt' food in restaurants in your own city.

You might be surprised to hear that 'burning' isn’t all about meat (move over black and crunchy barbecued sausages). Burning onions might be something you’ve done by accident, but adding 'burnt onions' to oils, ketchups and salads is one trend that doesn’t appear to be fizzling out.

After a kitchen fire in Dutch restaurant The Jane Antwerp, the team developed “We got burnt”, for which they cured marinated fish in burnt onion powder and served it with a 'dashi' containing burnt onion oil and toasted hay – oh and the fish got set on fire at the table for a finishing flare. And Mexican chef Mario Hernandez has been known to scatter the ashes of chillies and corn husks into dishes, including ice cream, at his restaurant in Michigan.

Instagram / @thejaneantwerp

Some eateries are even burning… TOAST! Sqirl, a café in LA, is topping 'burnt' brioche with ricotta and jam (yum?). So the next time someone gives you that assured look and says “uh-ho, looks like someone’s burnt something”, you can smugly reply, “well that’s the whole point!”, even if it wasn’t…

Instagram / @sqirlla

Purposefully burning food is not exactly new; it has a history rooted in many cultures. Caribbean and Mexican cuisines often add 'burnt' flavours for depth. In Mexican mole, tomatoes and tomatillos are sometimes blackened before being blended into a sauce. Turkish 'burned milk pudding' involves scorching the base, Vietnamese 'nuoc mau' is a burnt caramel sauce and French crème brûlée involves close-to burnt sugar for that desirable 'crack' in the topping – anything less and you have a limp dessert.

This 'burning' is often simply charring. Scientifically, 'burning' means the food has turned mostly into carbon and might turn to dust right before your eyes. Charring gets close to burning, but doesn’t allow the food to disintegrate. If you’re not careful, char can turn to burn (only a positive if you want it to and it might set off your smoke detector!).

Most organic substances are made up of carbon and a few other elements. When you burn or char food the carbon undergoes combustion and produces carbon dioxide and burnt carbon, which is black. This process goes further than browning food (the Maillard reaction, which takes place between amino acids and sugars in foods and smells, looks and tastes good – think browning chicken and roast potatoes).

For some, reaching the blacker end of the cooking spectrum is a step too far. For others, it provides a welcome opportunity to step out of the shadows and practice the dark arts of haute cuisine.

Does burnt food give you cancer?

You may have heard or read that “burnt toast can give you cancer”, but is it true?

In 2002, Swedish scientists brought attention to acrylamide, a molecule that forms when food is browned, charred or burnt. It's a potential toxin and carcinogen in its industrial form. However, research hasn’t established whether acrylamide is a carcinogen in humans when eaten at the levels found in cooked food, though the Food Standards Agency (FSA) raises concerns.

One review of the available data concluded “dietary acrylamide is not related to the risk of most common cancers”. However, a modest association with kidney, endometrial and ovarian cancer, in non-smokers, couldn’t be ruled out.

The FSA has a “go for gold” recommendation, which is to grill, fry or bake food until it goes yellow, not brown or black. You don’t find acrylamide in uncooked or boiled food and you're unlikely to find it in dairy, meat or fish products. Starchy foods, such as potatoes and other root vegetables, are more of a potential risk, according to the FSA.

Meat cooked over a very high heat, such as a fire or barbecue, may increase your risk of cancer, which is unrelated to the presence of acrylamide but carcinogenic hydrocarbons called PAHs.

The NHS says the occasional slice of burnt toast (or dollop of burnt onion ketchup) “isn't going to kill you”, but a diet high in “calorie-rich starchy foods” should be avoided on health grounds, whether there’s a link to cancer or not.

Burning isn’t the same as adding charcoal to food

If you’ve been on Instagram for more than a few years, you’ll remember the last black food craze – added activated charcoal. This lead to bagels, ice cream, pancakes, Swiss rolls, smoothies and much more being given the Halloween treatment.

Instagram / @fitomatoes

This unusual black food was more a visual statement than health movement, but some claim taking activated charcoal as a supplement capsule or powder in food and drink can have health benefits such as 'detoxification'. So far, there have been no studies analysing the long-term health effects of the doses found commonly in products.

Activated charcoal is not the same substance as burnt food or the charcoal you put on the barbecue. Rather, it is a form of carbon made from materials such as bamboo, coal and commonly coconut shells heated to a very high temperature. Once it has gone through the heating process to make it 'active', it becomes very absorbent, allowing it to bind with molecules, ions and atoms in and outside the body.

For this reason, it has been used in medicine to treat poisoning by absorbing a harmful chemical in the gut (do not attempt to cure poisoning with activated charcoal at home). However, it will absorb both good and bad stuff in the gut and it can bind with nutrients, stopping them from being absorbed by the body. Active charcoal ice cream is a trend, but the active charcoal may prevent the absorption of vitamins found in milk, such as calcium.

This may extend to some medications too. For example, consuming activated charcoal within a few hours of taking the contraceptive pill could reduce its efficiency.

Founder of the drinks company Bittermens, Avery Glasser, once joked he was going to make a cocktail with activated charcoal called “See Ya In Nine Months”, referencing the potential to reduce the effectiveness of some contraception. It is also a nod towards an ethical dilemma – should these foods, drinks and products be served to customers without a warning?

To date, there haven't been any recorded adverse reactions associated with activated charcoal but there is also “no concrete evidence to support the use of activated charcoal to lower cholesterol, decrease flatulence, remedy hangovers or help the body 'detox',” all things it is touted as being good for, says dietitian Taylor Wolfram.