What It Really Means When You Crave Burnt Food

Food cravings are something everyone deals with from time to time. Whether salt, sugary sweets, or a big steak, we all know the feeling of wanting a particular food so much it can drive us to distraction. But some people crave a type of food more than a particular food itself. A portion of the population hankers for burnt food, including things like popcorn, meat, charred vegetables, burnt marshmallows, and more. What's behind this drive?

Food cravings overall may indicate a lack of a particular nutrient in the body, according to Shape, but they can also be triggered by emotions. A chocolate craving could be spurred by a recent breakup, but it might also reveal a magnesium deficiency. Salty foods might be an electrolyte imbalance, and meat cravings could be triggered by low iron, zinc, or vitamin B12.

But when it comes to burnt food, there's something else at play: it's called the Maillard reaction, according to Epicurious. When food is cooked, there are complex chemical reactions taking place that affect amino acids and sugars. Burning or charring food pushes those reactions to the limit, creating rich layers of flavor that especially appeal to some taste buds.

Is it safe to eat burnt food?

Dr. Paul Breslin works at the Monell Center, an institute that studies tastes and smells. He told Epicurious, "I do think that Maillards stop at a certain point in the burning process, and you get into a different kind of chemistry. We find the caramelization of sugar, slightly burnt sugar, very attractive but if you burn the sugar into blackened cinders, we don't like it. The chemistries of this are not at all simple."

And there are some warnings that come with eating burnt food, starches in particular. Burning things like toast can increase exposure to something called acrylamide, a chemical that is considered a carcinogen, according to Quartz. Foods that contain higher levels of acrylamide when burned include french fries, bread, and potato chips.

Studies have shown, however, that you'd have to ingest extremely large amounts of these foods for the level of acrylamide to really be a concern, according to Harvard Health Publishing. So enjoying in moderation, as with all food, should be just fine for those with a hankering for some crispy char.