Does Grilling Pose A Cancer Risk?
"Thinkers get headaches. Worriers get ulcers." Meathead
In recent years, the popular media have run a number of stories that may give you the impression that grilling can be bad for your health. They are often poorly researched, poorly worded, ill-informed, or motivated by a vegetarian agenda, As far as I can tell from studying a lot of research, this is not true. Grilling is not bad for your health. But it appears that bad grilling may be bad for your health.
HCAs and PAHs
At issue is the possible presence of two known carcinogens, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), both know carcinogens.
The National Cancer Institute says "HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures." The longer they are exposed to high temperatures the more HCAs form.
USDA says "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."
The article continues to explain that charring meat is a fine way to create HCAs. Charring your meat is not only unhealthy it is unappetizing and ruinous to your reputation. When it comes to grilling, the best tasting foods are cooked over low temps most of the way although, sadly, many backyard cooks have not learned this yet. The best grillmasters have learned that the best tasting foods are made when the majority of the cooking is not over open flame, with a 2-zone setup.
According to one of the country's primary researchers in the field, Dr. Rashmi Sinha of the National Cancer Institute "There's a clear relationship between very high temperatures and the risk of cancer-causing agents."
Dr. Sinha has some healthy cooking advice that all good chefs can agree with from a tasty cooking standpoint. She says we need to avoid blackening meat on the outside. This charring creates potentially hazardous compounds. And, I might add, it just plain tastes bad.
She says we should avoid flare-ups caused when fat hits the flame. Flare-ups just burn the food and deposit soot on the surface. You can avoid flare-ups by using a gas grill with metal flavor bars between the food and the flame, of by using a 2-zone cooking system on a charcoal grill and by having a squirt gun handy.
Dr. Sinha says that if there are burned parts of the meat, especially burned fat, just cut them off. "It's important to help consumers understand how to cook without undercooking or overcooking," to which the National Cancer Institute (NCI) adds "That's one more reason to use a food thermometer." Amen.
In their report on HCAs in Cooked Meats, NCI says "Four factors influence HCA formation: Type of food, cooking method, temperature, and time. HCAs are found in cooked muscle meats; other sources of protein (milk, eggs, tofu, and organ meats such as liver) have very little or no HCA content naturally or when cooked. Temperature is the most important factor in the formation of HCAs. Frying, broiling, and barbecuing produce the largest amounts of HCAs because the meats are cooked at very high temperatures."
They also added "Researchers found that those who ate their beef medium-well or well-done had more than three times the risk of stomach cancer than those who ate their beef rare or medium-rare." I might add that well done meat is tougher and drier. Click here for more on proper meat temperature and click here for more on food, cooking, and barbecue safety.
Like so many areas of preliminary research, there is conflicting and contrary information. For example, it is not known how many HCAs are problematic.
Now let's look at PAHs. According to the EPA "PAHs are created when products like coal, oil, gas, and garbage are burned but the burning process is not complete." That includes the incomplete combustion of charcoal, wood, and meat drippings. Smoke includes as many as 100 compounds in the form of microscopic solids including char, creosote, ash, as well as combustion gases that include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polymers, and liquids such as water vapor, and phenols. Complete combustion produces much less smoke, and PAHs, than smoldering, which is incomplete combustion. Smoked meat is usually made by incomplete combustion, at low temperatures so it is low in HCAs and high in PAHs.
Propane grilling is the most popular outdoor cooking method in the US and burning propane produces almost no smoke. While a charcoal fire is starting it can produce smoke, when it is fully lit it produces little smoke. Drippings from the food can produce smoke, but the contents of that smoke are a lot different than the smoke from a hardwood fire. Even so, grilling most meals goes so quickly that there isn't enough time for smoke to accumulate in significant quantities on the meat. The amount of PAHs are small.
Smoked meats vs. grilled meats
Many research papers linking grilling to cancer were all about smoked meat which is different from grilled meat. There are, broadly speaking, two ways to smoke meat, cold smoking and hot smoking. In cold smoking, the food is not heated much. Cold smoking usually involves smoldering wood, higher in PAHs. Many smoked meats are also treated with a "curing" agent containing high concentrations of salt and preservatives. Almost all our cold smoked meats come from USDA licensed processors using hardwoods. Two of the key research papers were eating surveys in China and Hungary where they were smoking over softwood, long known to be hazardous. Very few Americans have the equipment and expertise to cold smoke in their back yard. Cold smoking at home is in and of itself risky from a microbial standpoint and not recommended unless it is done precisely.
Hot smoking heats and cooks the meat. It is becoming popular in the US, as in Southern barbecued ribs or pulled pork, and Texas beef brisket. As pitmasters know, the smoke of a hot hardwood fire, called blue smoke, looks and tastes very different from a low smoldering fire. A good pitmaster seeks blue smoke, clean hardwood combustion which will contain fewer PAHs.
It is important that consumers understand that much of the relationship between HCAs, PAHs, and cancer is still not thoroughly understood, that there is a lot of research yet to be done, and that eating burned steak once or twice a year isn't likely to make you sick. We also need to remember that many of the studies are epidimiological eating surveys, which are not very accurate and are best used to tell us that further research is needed. Click here for more on the pitfalls of this type of research.
The real message here is that good food is also good for you and that if you're going to grill, do it good.
This page was revised 2/1/2014
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