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Mutat Res. 1991 Mar-Apr;259(3-4):251-61.

The formation and occurrence of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons associated with food.

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NCI-Frederick Cancer Research Facility, BRI-Basic Research, Program, MD 21701.


Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons are common contaminants of processed food, usually at trace levels. These hydrocarbons are products of combustion and pyrolysis, and are present in petroleum and coal, and in products derived from them. Most polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons are not carcinogenic, but some of them are, and a few are potent inducers of skin and lung tumors in mice. Their carcinogenic properties have not been fully explored, but they seem to be less potent by ingestion or inhalation, and they are known as a group to produce cancer in humans. The most effective carcinogens among them are those with 5 or 6 fused rings, and these tend to be less prevalent in mixtures than the 3- and 4-ring hydrocarbons, most of which are not carcinogenic. Sophisticated analytical methods, using solvent extraction and chromatography have been developed to detect and measure polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons at levels of 1 in 10(9) (1 part per billion) or less, and these have been applied to the measurement of individual compounds in foods, as well as in products of combustion and pyrolysis. Wood smoke and smoked foods contain the carcinogenic benzo[a]pyrene at levels of 1 ppb, and other hydrocarbons; liquid smoke has lower levels. Crude vegetable oils have higher concentrations, but purified 'deodorized' oils have benzo[a]pyrene levels near 1 ppb. Sausages cooked over burning logs had as much as 200 ppb benzo[a]pyrene. Charcoal-broiled steaks and ground meat had benzo[a]pyrene concentrations up to 50 micrograms/kg, while less fatty pork and chicken had lower concentrations (up to 10 micrograms/kg). It was probable that the rendered fat dripped on to the hot charcoal and pyrolyzed to form quantities of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which rose with the smoke to deposit on the meat. Therefore, oven cooking or cooking with a heat source above the meat, or segregation of the meat from the smoke resulted in food containing negligible amounts of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. Modifications of cookings practices accordingly would greatly reduce exposure to this group of carcinogens.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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