The link between grilling and cancer risk

Grilling meat is more than a quick — and tasty — way to cook dinner. Cookouts offer great opportunities for family gatherings, relaxation and summer fun.

But UCLA Health experts warn that eating meat cooked over high temperatures may increase the risk of some types of cancer. The process of grilling over high heat burns the meat’s fat and produces carcinogenic chemicals. Extended exposure to these chemicals (over the course of many decades) can damage your DNA and possibly contribute to the development of tumors.

In particular, the carcinogens associated with grilling may increase your risk of:

  • Colon cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer.
  • Prostate cancer.

The good news is that taking steps to grill in a healthier way can limit your exposure to carcinogens.

“It’s not so much a one-time experience, such as an occasion where you kept your meat on the grill too long and it turned black,” says Catherine Carpenter, a professor of clinical nutrition and a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “It’s more of a message about one’s lifestyle. You’ve been cooking that way for 30 years; every weekend, there’s a barbecue, you grill the meat at high temperatures, and all of this blackening occurs. That’s when it becomes a problem in terms of cancer risk.”

Dr. Carpenter said long-term exposure to HCAs and PAHs has been shown to increase the risk of prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers. With PAHs in particular, which are aerosols produced from cooking smoke that are also deposited on the meat, the exposure potential is twofold: from contact due to ingestion of the food and through smoke inhalation.

Dr. Carpenter offers these grilling suggestions to reduce the risk of exposure to these carcinogens.

  • Don’t grill the meat over direct heat. If you have multiple burners, put the meat over the burner that doesn’t have a flame, cooking instead with indirect heat.
  • If the meat has to be grilled over a direct flame, turn the meat over frequently to reduce exposure to carcinogens.
  • If the meat has charcoal parts, trim them off before serving.
  • Serve the meat with fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants that counteract the effects of the cancer-causing chemicals.
  • Similarly, consider marinating the meat in a citrus-based marinade before grilling. The meat will absorb the citrus, with the antioxidants offsetting the chemical effects of the carcinogens.

“I’m not saying don’t barbeque the meat, but cook it in a way that’s better for you in terms of cancer risk,” Dr. Carpenter said.

(Reprinted from UCLA Health)

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