Barbecue and Cancer: Let's Review The Risks

Summer is in full swing, and many of us are enjoying one of life’s favorite past times — eating barbecued foods. Who can’t resist ears of corn, or a burger or hot dog? I certainly can’t, and have no intention of stopping — but I am now more careful about what and where I eat barbecue , as well as how I prepare it.  Why? That’s because I was too darn curious; while I was watching the smoke rise from the grill at my favorite Japanese teppanyaki restaurant, I googled “barbecue + cancer” on my iPhone and found quite a lot of research discussing this issue.  Unfortunately, it’s true: barbecuing many animal proteins, as well as from any smoke, definitely can create unhealthy chemicals, the most dangerous of which are called heterocyclic amines, which are officially listed by the FDA since 2005  as cancer-causing agents. So I’ve decided to ruin all of your late summers and tell you the scary details. OK, it’s not that bad — but there are some basic facts which can help you decrease your risk, as well as increase your nutrition.

One trusted source is from the Harvard Health Letter, which in 2007 wrote this nice summary about barbecue’s risks:

When meat is cooked at high temperatures, amino acids react with creatine to form heterocyclic amines, which are thought to cause cancer. That’s why cooking meat by grilling, frying, or broiling is the problem. Grilling is double trouble because it also exposes meat to cancer-causing chemicals contained in the smoke that rises from burning coals and any drips of fat that cause flare-ups. How long the meat is cooked is also a factor in heterocyclic amine formation; longer cooking time means more heterocyclic amines. Depending on the temperature at which it’s cooked, meat roasted or baked in the oven may contain some heterocyclic amines, but it’s likely to be considerably less than in grilled, fried, or broiled meat.

Marinating meat is often suggested as one way to cut down on the formation of heterocyclic amines, but the evidence that marinating helps is mixed. The Harvard Health Letter suggests some other tips that may make grilled meat safer to eat:

  • Cook smaller pieces: They cook more quickly and at lower temperatures.
  • Choose leaner meat: Less fat should reduce flames and therefore smoke.
  • Precook in the microwave: Doing so for two minutes may decrease heterocyclic amines by 90%, according to some research.
  • Flip frequently: That way, neither side has time to absorb or lose too much heat.

Another good source, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, has this to say:

Does Grilling Pose a Cancer Risk?
Some studies suggest there may be a cancer risk related to eating food cooked by high-heat cooking techniques as grilling, frying, and broiling. Based on present research findings, eating moderate amounts of grilled meats like fish, meat, and poultry cooked — without charring — to a safe temperature does not pose a problem.

To prevent charring, remove visible fat that can cause a flare-up. Precook meat in the microwave immediately before placing it on the grill to release some of the juices that can drop on coals. Cook food in the center of the grill and move coals to the side to prevent fat and juices from dripping on them. Cut charred portions off the meat.

Yet more fascinating data, backed up by studies, came from the Cancer Project website’s page on barbecue risks. Among their findings:

Cancer Project nutritionists determined that many commonly grilled foods contain alarmingly high levels of HCAs. This table lists the five foods containing the highest levels.

The Five Worst Foods to Grill

FoodHCAs ng/100g*
Chicken breast, skinless, boneless, grilled, well done14,300 ng/100g2
Steak, grilled, well done810 ng/100g3
Pork, barbecued470 ng/100g4
Salmon, grilled with skin166 ng/100g5
Hamburger, grilled, well done130 ng/100g3
*100g portion equals about 3.5 ounces grilled


Safer Alternatives for Grilling
Other foods produce undetectable levels or negligible concentrations of HCAs when they are grilled. These include soy-based veggie burgers, veggie brochettes, and portabello mushroom “steaks.” These healthy vegetarian alternatives are also low in fat and cholesterol.

And yet other sites, including the New York Times, mention tantalizing research from lucky lab techs at Livermore, who reportedly found that certain marinades dramatically decreased the carcinogen production. But I’m still trying in vain to see these original studies, so I cannot comment too much on that.

The Bottom Line

I think there’s certainly enough evidence about HCA and PAC compounds to make hard-core barbecuers take note, and perhaps follow some basic changes. My major changes:

  • Pre-zap more of my meats in the microwave  for 2 minutes
  • Focus on less charring and less smoke
  • Use more lean meats
  • Use more marinade and sauces
  • Barbecue more veggies (corn, roasted bell peppers, portabello, onions…awesome!)

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