Cancer & Grilled Meat

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Memorial Day Weekend is here! Nothing kicks off the summer quite like a poolside bbq with friends. If I was a betting gal, I would say you’re planning on heating up the barbie this weekend and grilling some of your favorite foods.

Not to be a giant buzz kill, but  grilling certain foods like steak, salmon, & chicken create the cancer causing chemicals  Heterocyclic amines(HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons(PAHs). These form anytime muscle is cooked over a high heat source- like grilling or pan-frying. When meat is grilled the protein, sugar, and creatine in the meat react with high temperatures and become mutagenic- meaning they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. Meat that is cooked the longest (think well-done) have the highest concentrations of these chemicals.

In animal studies,  rats fed HCAs developed tumors of the breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, prostate, and other organs. Those that were fed PAHs also developed cancers, including leukemia and tumors of the gastrointestinal tract and lungs. While the doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies were very high (1000X the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet) the results should be noted.

“We know these compounds can probably cause cancer in humans,” says Elizabeth Snyderwine, Chief of the Chemical Carcinogenesis Section at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland. “What we don’t know yet is how significant a problem they are in the American diet.”

Until there’s more evidence, “it makes sense to avoid (HCAs) when we can,” says Mark Knize of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.

What’s a BBQ host to do!?

If you are planning on serving and grilling meat, the National Cancer Insitute has developed some guidelines to help reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs: 

  • Avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface and avoiding prolonged cooking times (especially at high temperatures).
  • Using a microwave oven to cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures can also substantially reduce HCA formation by reducing the time that meat must be in contact with high heat to finish cooking.
  • Continuously turning meat over on a high heat source can substantially reduce HCA formation compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it often.
  • Removing charred portions of meat and refraining from using gravy made from meat drippings can also reduce HCA and PAH exposure.

You can also skip the meat all together and choose from my favorite grill recipes:

Grilled Corn: Maybe the simplest indulgence summer can offer. Peel the husk down, remove the silk strands, add margarine/EB butter and seasonings. Pull the husks back up, wrap with kitchen string and soak in cold water. Grill with husks on for 30 minutes.

The BEST vegetarian burgers

Banana & Pineapple sundaes: Split a whole banana lengthwise, keeping the peel on. Place pineapple slices on grill and cook 3-5 minutes per side. Add banana to grill and heat until it starts to soften. Dice the pineapple slices place inside the sliced banana. Top with a scoop or two of your favorite ice cream and dig in!

Fire up the Grill Fajitas

What are your thoughts on this topic? What are you planning on grilling this weekend?

Read more:

  • Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Nakagama H, Nagao M. Heterocyclic amines: Mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish. Cancer Science 2004; 95(4):290–299. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Ito N, Hasegawa R, Sano M, et al. A new colon and mammary carcinogen in cooked food,2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP). Carcinogenesis 1991; 12(8):1503–1506.

    Kato T, Ohgaki H, Hasegawa H, et al. Carcinogenicity in rats of a mutagenic compound, 2-amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline. Carcinogenesis 1988; 9(1):71–73.

    Rohrmann S, Zoller D, Hermann S, Linseisen J. Intake of heterocyclic aromatic amines from meat in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Heidelberg cohort. British Journal of Nutrition 2007; 98(6):1112–1115

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    • BL

      My favorite part of summer is bbqing. Very thought provoking post.

    • BL

      As a someone who rarely eats meat, frequently flipping veggie burgers isn’t a big deal. However, I know minimizing the flipping of meat on grills better preserves the meat’s juices. Therefore, your flipping recommendation may create disagreement by certain folks. Any thoughts from other followers?

      • DK

        Great point. If anyone has any suggestions, let me know. Meat BBQing isn’t my forte so I’m sure someone out there has a great suggestion. My intention for posting on cancer & grilled meat was to discuss the dangers that grilling can have. I’m not saying you can’t grill out but I am a huge believer in giving you, the reader, as much knowledge as you can about nutrition. From there, you can decide what’s important to you and what’s not. I guess I’m saying, “pick your battles.” If you love grilling out, try cutting down how much you cook out. Or try non-meat items on the grill.