Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the diet

Mutat Res. 1999 Jul 15;443(1-2):139-47. doi: 10.1016/s1383-5742(99)00016-2.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), of which benzo[a]pyrene is the most commonly studied and measured, are formed by the incomplete combustion of organic matter. They are widely distributed in the environment and human exposure to them is unavoidable. A number of them, such as benzo[a]pyrene, are carcinogenic and mutagenic, and they are widely believed to make a substantial contribution to the overall burden of cancer in humans. Their presence in the environment is reflected in their presence at detectable levels in many types of uncooked food. In addition, cooking processes can generate PAHs in food. PAHs can also be formed during the curing and processing of raw food prior to cooking. Several studies have been carried out to determine the levels of exposure to PAHs from representative human diets, and the proportion of the overall burden of environmental exposure to PAHs that is attributable to the diet. In most cases, it is concluded that diet is the major source of human exposure to PAHs. The major dietary sources of PAHs are cereals and vegetables, rather than meat, except where there is high consumption of meat cooked over an open flame. More recently, biomonitoring procedures have been developed to assess human exposure to PAHs and these have also indicated that diet is a major source of exposure. Exposure to nitro-PAHs through food consumption appears to be very low.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Diet*
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Food Contamination / analysis*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocarbons, Aromatic / adverse effects
  • Hydrocarbons, Aromatic / analysis*
  • Hydrocarbons, Aromatic / chemistry
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Polycyclic Compounds / adverse effects
  • Polycyclic Compounds / analysis*
  • Polycyclic Compounds / chemistry


  • Biomarkers
  • Hydrocarbons, Aromatic
  • Polycyclic Compounds