Nothing sucks the fun out of summer’s unofficial start quite like examining the relationship between grilling and cancer risk. But before you bite into that first glorious burger of the weekend, there are a couple of things you should know.
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, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer,” according to the National Cancer Institute.
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. “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. 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.
“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.”
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 300 degrees [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.”
Happy and healthy grilling, everybody.
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