Q. Does Grilling Cause Cancer?
Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D.,
Healthy Grilling Tips and Recipes
A. There’s no evidence that grilling causes cancer. But cooking meat at the high temperatures you use to grill—as well as broil and fry—creates heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), compounds linked with some cancers.
Animal and laboratory studies suggest that HCAs may damage DNA and spur the development of tumors in cells of the colon, breast, prostate and lymph system. At temperatures of 350°F and hotter, amino acids and creatine (a natural compound that helps supply energy to muscles and nerves) react to form HCAs. PAHs form when fat drips onto hot coals, creating smoke that settles on food; these compounds have been associated with increased risk of breast cancer.
But "within the big picture of cancer prevention, there are much greater risks than grilling," says Colleen Doyle, M.S., R.D., director of Nutrition and Physical Activity for the American Cancer Society. For example, "if you’re 30 pounds overweight, that puts you at much greater risk for developing a number of cancers [than does eating grilled meats]."
When you do grill, there are several things you can do to reduce HCAs and PAHs.
- Grill fish. "Beef, pork and poultry tend to form more HCAs than seafood because of their higher amino acid content and longer grilling times," says Doyle.
- Prefer meat or poultry? Trim fat to reduce drips.
- Flavor meats with marinades and rubs. Research in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry showed that marinating red meat in beer or wine for two hours significantly reduced HCAs. Scientists believe the antioxidants in these marinades block HCAs from forming. Similarly, a Kansas State University study found that rubbing rosemary, an herb known for its high level of antioxidants, onto meats before grilling cut HCA levels by up to 100 percent. Herbs including basil, mint, sage and oregano may have similar effects.
- Pair grilled meats with vegetables, particularly cruciferous ones. In one study, men who ate about 2½ cups of Brussels sprouts every day for three weeks reduced their DNA damage significantly. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, contain sulforaphane, a compound that may help the body clear DNA-damaging compounds more quickly.
Bottom Line: Keep your grill. While some studies suggest that grilling produces compounds linked with cancer, the risks associated with eating grilled meats are relatively small when you look at the big picture.
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