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 are often poorly worded, ill-informed, or on a vegetarian agenda, that may give you the impression that grilling can be bad for your health. 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.
Here is what the United States Department of Agriculture (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 keywords are "some studies suggest" and "without charring". It appears that charring the meat can create compounds called Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) that probably are capable of causing colon cancer, lung cancer, or breast cancer if consumed in excess. But, like so many areas of preliminary research, there is conflicting and contrary information. For example, it is not known how many HCAs are problematic.
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 adds 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) ads "That's one more reason to use a food thermometer." Amen.
In their report on Heterocyclic Amines 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.
It is important that consumers understand that much of the relationship between HCA 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 probably isn't going to make you sick. Nor is eating well done steak. The real message here is that good food is also good for you and that if you're going to grill, do it right.
This page was revised 6/1/2010
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