Mutagens, carcinogenic and toxic compounds in food


The rapid technological development of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century did not omit the issue of nutrition. This development brought many benefits, but also many threats resulting from the use of various types of improvers, substitutes, or substances intended to provide higher product quality. To this day, there is no consensus among researchers whether these changes are better or worse. From the point of view of the economics of production, the changes are definitely in the plus. Producing a product is cheaper, its shelf life is longer. There were also reports, however, that the substance supporting production may be harmful to the human body. are this is in reality? I divided the problem of mutagens, toxic substances and carcinogens into 3 parts. The first one will describe the impact of food processing by humans. It’s about grilling, cooking, baking or frying. The second one will describe the problem of substances getting into food in connection with environmental pollution and “improvement in the production process. The third part will be devoted to natural harmful substances. 


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A very serious problem related to nutrition in the XX and XXI is the emergence of the so-called mutagens as a result of the processing the food is subjected to. The easiest thing to say about mutagen is the factor that causes the mutation, or hereditary change in the body. Mutagenic substances very often also have a carcinogenic effect (carcinogenic) and should therefore be discussed in parallel. 



HCA (Heterocyclic aromatic amines) 

The most commonly occurring carcinogenic and mutagenic substances include heterocyclic aromatic amines. They appear in food as a result of their thermal treatment at temperatures above 150 degrees Celsius. It is at this temperature that amino acids build up proteins with creatine and saccharides in the muscles (this process is called the Maillard reaction). HCA are mainly made on the surface of meat and fish baked over an open fire (a crunchy skin favorite for many). 

The HCA content ranges from a few to several hundred ng / g of food. The amount of HCA affects 

– processing time and temperature. The longer we bake, fry, cook or cook, the more HCA appears in the final product; 

– type of meat. The largest amount of HCA is found in well-fried red meat; 

– how to prepare. Boiled and non-marinated meat has less HCA than it has undergone any treatment. 

Even a small amount of HCA can cause DNA damage. There are also documented cases of myocardial cell damage. However, this mutagenic and carcinogenic activity is the most dangerous. It has been proven that HCA has an effect on the formation of colon cancer and breast cancer. For many, however, the most important information will be the fact that in order for HCA to really do a lot of damage to the body, there is a so-called favorable environmental factors, such as susceptibility to intestinal diseases. In another case, the body itself is able to remove harmful mutagens. 



PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) 

As a result of heat treatment of meat, there appear further harmful compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in brief PAH. They have also been detected in tea leaves, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, oils and cereals. The effect on the amount of PAH in food has the type of treatment, the level of soil contamination, air entrustment as well as water. In regions less prone to contamination, PAHs are relatively low and do not directly threaten life, however, in products originating from heavily polluted areas, their amount can range from 2 to 5g per kilogram of product. Therefore, PAHs are highly mutagenic and carcinogenic. 



Other harmful substances found in food include also nitrosamines. In products, they appear as additives used in food production, or as preservatives added to finished products. In a balanced diet, without a definite advantage of one of the components of nitrosamines, they are not too harmful. Unfortunately, many trainers forget about such important vegetables and fruits that affect the reduction of harmfulness with nitroses found in red meat, as well as products with a large number of preservatives. 

The most dangerous, because the most commonly occurring nitrosamines in food is NDMA (N-nitrosodimethylamine). Too high consumption of products rich in preservatives and heat treated may cause induction of liver, colon, lung, pancreatic or stomach tumors. All nitrosamines also have mutagenic properties. Particularly high concentrations of NDMA and other nitrosamines occur in smoked sausages, salami, bacon, ham, beef or hamburgers. 

The simplest way to minimize the side effects of “nitrosamines, PAHs and HCAs is the right diet, and thus the lifestyle. A high fiber diet, fresh vegetables and fruits as well as an active lifestyle effectively reduce the risk of induction of tumors and other diseases associated with the mutagenic effects of the compounds described. 




In addition to the food processing described earlier, toxic substances also appear in food as a result of the use of various types of fertilizers, pesticides and other measures to ensure better conditions for plant growth. This also applies to the use of similar substances in animal feed or various types of antibiotics. Moderate use of these products does not necessarily adversely affect human health, but too large amounts can cause serious illnesses. 

Pesticides and other harmful substances for the human body mainly accumulate in adipose tissue. Despite the existence of both community and internal regulations, many harmful substances are still used, such as particularly dangerous DDT. In a great but too propaganda way, the problem of antibiotics and other enhancers is the Meatrix film, which I encourage everyone to see. 




Pesticides are used in the process of destroying parasites of both plants and living organisms. The number of this type of compounds is estimated at around 1000. Human poisoning with pesticides may occur as a result of confusion, deliberately or as a result of the accumulation of small amounts of pesticides for a longer period of time in the human body. The most dangerous are insecticides, which can lead to serious damage to the kidneys and liver. The DDTs mentioned above are also accumulated in the liver as well as the brain and heart. While many pesticides can be neutralized as a result of deoxidant factors, DDT shows very high resistance to them. 

Fortunately, throughout the European Union and in countries referred to as Western regulations on the content of pesticides in final products are very restrictive, and appropriate controls are very common. The risk of pesticides is getting smaller in the course of time. 




Dioxins are also very dangerous compounds that have mutagenic and carcinogenic properties. They arise as a result of combustion processes of industrial waste, hard coal, etc. The body usually gets into the body with food, as the dust remaining from the combustion processes are transferred to very large distances contaminating the soil and water. Like dioxin pesticides very well dissolve in fats, and their sources are meat and its products, fish, milk and its products and eggs. In meat, they appear mainly due to contamination of feed, which feeds animals. Also, the heat treatment of food already described affects the formation of dioxins. 



Heavy metals 

Due to the rapid industrial development of the world, the danger of heavy metal poisoning has increased significantly. Although in recent years in developed countries there is a reduction in their emissions, contamination like soil is a process that is hardly reversible. And it is the soil contamination, in addition to water and air, that is the most common reason for the appearance of heavy metals in food. 

The biggest threat is certainly cadmium, lead and mercury. They can accumulate in the body, have a long half-life, and thus chronic toxicity. Serious poisoning is rather rare, however, its continuous intake even in small doses can lead to chronic disorders. These include changes in protein synthesis, abnormal ATP production, damage to the nervous, circulatory and digestive systems. Heavy metals accumulate mainly in the bones, brain, liver, kidneys and muscles. 

The appropriate diet is very important in the case of “prophylactic fight against heavy metals”. The ability to reduce the risk has proteins, dietary fiber, vitamins C, D and E, thiamine, as well as some minerals. The main “source of heavy metals are plants due to permanent contact with contaminated soil, fish and crustaceans in the case of mercury, as well as cadmium and lead in the case of potatoes. 




Other harmful and toxic substances occur naturally in food products and may pose some risk. 

In many plant products there are natural toxic substances, such as solanina in potatoes or gitaginine in cereal products. Poisonings with these compounds are mainly associated with improper food preparation. In the case of proper treatment, they lose their toxic properties. 

Mold toxins, in particular alphatoxins, can also be dangerous, which can lead to carcinogenic processes, as well as limb paralysis and external hemorrhage. However, they are characteristic mainly for products created in tropical countries. Fortunately, along with the development of food technology, the risk of toxin poisoning decreases. If certain precautions are taken, food will be prepared appropriately and we will not consume bad products, the risk will be reduced to a minimum. 

The problem of food contamination is a very complex and difficult problem. As I have presented in this work, these pollutants arise mainly as a result of human action and this is not always in bad intentions. For sure, we will not be able to completely eliminate them from our lives, but while maintaining certain basic principles of nutrition and lifestyle, we can significantly reduce their negative impact. A balanced diet with a lot of fresh green products (preferably from organic farming), ensuring high levels of fiber and essential minerals and vitamins in the diet significantly reduces the negative impact of food contaminants. 


You can read also: PQQ and liver health

Posted on: February 18, 2019

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