May 24, 2019
Memorial Day Weekend in the United States is, first and foremost, a time when we remember those who gave up their lives while serving in the Armed Forces. But it also is traditionally the occasion when many Americans fire up their barbeques and break out the burgers and buns.
And what could be more wholesome and fun than having a delicious meal—cooked outdoors and shared with family and friends?
It turns out that there may be plenty of activities that would lead to better outcomes, now that we have been forced to examine the relationship between grilling and cancer risk, The Huffington Post reports.
Research suggests that meat— including beef, pork, poultry or fish—forms carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) when charred or cooked over high heat, as on a grill (it’s what you think of as “grill marks”). In laboratory experiments, these chemicals have been “found to be mutagenic—that is, to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer,” according to the National Cancer Institute.
The formation of HCAs and PAHs varies by meat type, cooking method, and “doneness” level (rare, medium, or well done). Whatever the type of meat, however, meats cooked at high temperatures, especially above 300 ºF (as in grilling or pan frying), or that are cooked for a long time, tend to form more HCAs. For example, well-done, grilled, or barbecued chicken and steak all have high concentrations of HCAs. Cooking methods that expose meat to smoke contribute to PAH formation .
Theodore M. Brasky, a cancer epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HuffPost that there is a “wealth of data” about the effects of HCAs and PAHs on other animals, on which many of the studies have been conducted. But when it comes to humans, that data is less concrete.
“Studies in people are in some ways more complicated because it’s difficult to control all aspects,” he said. “But there is nevertheless a lot of evidence from epidemiological studies that show that healthy individuals who report eating well-done or barbecued meats tend to have higher occurrence of cancers of the GI tract (especially colon cancer) over time, after taking into account other factors.”
Kirsten Moysich, an expert in cancer prevention and public health from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, shared a similar sentiment with the online news outlet. “Some studies have shown that individuals who eat a lot of grilled meat are at higher risk of colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancer, but others have not shown these associations,” she said.
Moysich and Brasky both pointed to what might be a worse culprit at your barbecue than an open flame: processed meat like hot dogs and sausages, which contain cancer-causing additives and chemicals.
“The International Agency for the Research of Cancer has designated processed meats as a ‘group one’ carcinogen, meaning that there is convincing evidence that they are carcinogenic to people,” Brasky said. “They estimate that 50 grams (approximately two ounces) of processed meat consumed daily is associated with 18% increased colorectal cancer risk.”
Even by these numbers, you’d have to be eating a hot dog every day to up your risk exponentially, says HuffPost. But if you are concerned about coming into contact with potentially harmful foods or cooking methods, there are ways to avoid and lessen the risk altogether.
Moysich recommends “removing charred areas on the meat and turning meat over frequently.” She also suggests grilling vegetables and fruits, which do not produce HCAs and “are linked to a reduced risk of cancer.”
Brasky recommends something we could all stand to do in both grilling and life―slowing down. Cooking the meat at a lower temperature for a longer time means an even grill and less opportunity for charring. “Be mindful that meats should not be charred, and that if you can allot additional time to cook outdoors, you’ll be able to lower the grill temperature to below 300̊ [Fahrenheit],” he said.
The American Institute for Cancer Research also notes that marinades are a great way to create a barrier between the meat and the flame to decrease the amount of HCAs. The organization suggests trimming the fat off the meat or even pre-cooking it a bit before it goes on the grill.
Just as is the case with many things in life, Moysich offers a reminder that the best practice of all is to be mindful about how often you’re doing something ― whether eating processed meat, grilling or otherwise.
“Bottom line? Everything in moderation,” she said. “People should not be worried to eat grilled meat, but balance this indulgence with vegetable consumption, a brisk walk, avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol consumption.”
Research contact: @HuffPost