Grilling Meat: Is It a Cancer Risk?
The Bottom Line
There is some evidence that people who eat a lot of charred or very well done meat have a higher risk of cancer, particularly of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, and pancreas. To minimize the potential risks, minimize both the amount of time that meat is cooked at high heat and the amount of smoke in contact with the meat.
The Full Story
Could eating a lot of grilled meat cause cancer? The research says…maybe.
It is known that meats cooked at high temperatures, for example by frying or barbecuing, produce compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are associated with cancers in animals. There is some evidence that people who eat a lot of charred or very well done meat have a higher risk of cancer, particularly of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, and pancreas.
It is also known that when fat drips down onto hot coals, the resulting smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The smoke can deposit PAHs onto the food being grilled. There is some evidence that people who work with PAHs have an increased risk of lung, skin, and bladder cancer.
Fortunately, there are simple steps that can minimize the potential risks of eating grilled meats while maintaining the smoky flavor that so many people enjoy. The keys are to minimize both the amount of time that meat is cooked at high heat and the amount of smoke in contact with the meat. In at least one study, marinating meat with commercial mixtures of herbs and spices reduced the amount of HCAs in the cooked steak.
Here are some tips:
- Use lean meat. Trim all visible fat.
- Consider marinating the meat with herbs and spices.
- Microwave meat until nearly done before putting it on the grill.
- Place meat on foil with some holes poked into it to minimize the amount of fat dripping onto the heat source.
- Don't eat charred portions of meat.
And remember: vegetables can be grilled, too. They do not generate HCAs or PAHs. They taste good when grilled and they are good for you!
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
When grilling meat:
For More Information
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When grilling meat: