Frying or grilling of meat and fish products may generate low ppb levels of mutagenic/carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HAs). Many heterocyclic amines are formed via the Maillard reaction from creatine, free amino acids and monosaccharides; compounds naturally occurring in protein-rich foods of animal origin. The formation and yield of HAs are dependent on physical parameters, such as cooking temperature and time, cooking technique and equipment, heat and mass transport, and on chemical parameters, especially the precursors to HAs. This paper reviews the current knowledge on the formation of HAs in cooked foods and model systems, and summarizes data on the content of HAs in various cooked foods, and estimates of the dietary intake of HAs. It should be noted that the presence of carcinogens of other types in food (e.g. nitrosamines, aromatic amines, cholesterol oxide products) and that their generation during frying and grilling are outside the scope of this review.