Does grilling meat increase cancer risk?

Summer is here and that means grilling family favorites in the backyard or picnic area. Many people are already aware of the recommendations to wash hands after handling raw meats, to keep fresh food preparation separate from raw meat preparation, and to use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. But what about this cancer risk?

Grilling meat is often suggested as a healthy way to prepare beef, pork, chicken, and fish. Cooking these muscle meats at high temperatures, however, may increase one’s intake of heterocyclic amines.  These are breakdown products of creatine, an amino acid found in protein foods.  These chemicals that are linked to cancer can form during any high-heat cooking method including frying. More time on the grill or in the frying pan means more of these chemicals forming in the meat.

Grilling adds another specific danger, moreover, from the smoke and char that forms while meat cooks. As the fat and juices from the meat drip onto hot coals or grill surfaces, other compounds also linked to cancer form and are then carried to the meat in the resulting smoke or flames. The char that is often valued for color and rich flavor also contains these compounds.

Research has shown these compounds to cause cancer in animals, and human studies suggest that the chemicals could be associated with colon and stomach cancers.

Thankfully, there are steps that one can take to reduce risk and still enjoy a Sunday barbecue.

  • Clean the grill with hot, soapy water and a brush to remove previous, cooked-on residue.
  • Trim excess fat or use lean cuts of meats and poultry for grilling. This will reduce flame flares.
  • Marinate meats in a citrus or vinegar-based marinade. Food research shows that marinades reduce the formation of cancer-forming compounds.  And some of the marinades add healthy antioxidants.
  • Precook meats in the microwave before grilling to reduce the time on the grill.  Be sure to throw out the juices that accumulate on the dish–the juice could contain unsafe bacteria. Immediately place the meat on the grill and cook to the proper internal temperature.
  • Slice meats thinner to reduce cooking time. Grill lean meats instead of sausage, brats or fatty cuts of meat.
  • Keep the grill covered. This will reduce fire flare-ups and amounts of char.
  • Turn the meat frequently to further reduce charring. Cut away any charred or burned portions before eating.
  • Be adventurous and grill a greater variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, and alternatives to meat, including soy and veggie burgers.

With a little forethought and a watchful eye, the afternoon barbecue can still be a satisfying, delicious, and also healthy food experience. Happy grilling!


The epigenetics diet and cancer

Cancer has become a household word.  Most people know someone with cancer or someone who has had cancer in the past.  The good news is that new cases of cancer
from all causes in the United States have stabilized since 1999.  The not-so-good news is that certain types of cancer, such as kidney, liver, esophageal, and melanoma are on the rise.

February is National Cancer Prevention Month, a good time to consider one’s risk of
cancer and what can be done to reduce that risk. Eating healthy foods, especially vegetables, is one way to achieve this goal.  That is where the epigenetic diet comes in.

Epigenetics is the concept that characteristics that are acquired during one’s lifetime and not inherited through DNA can be passed on to future generations.

Picture a switch on a radio that turns the device on and off, or turns the volume up and down. The current idea is that, in a like fashion, nutrients in food can affect the way genes work by turning genes off and on or by increasing or decreasing their roles in disease.

Current research suggests that a vegetable-based diet may be the best approach to
influencing our genes in a positive manner.

Studies by Syed Meeran, Ph.D., and Trygve Tollefsbol, Ph.D., D.O., at UAB suggest that a healthy diet based on epigenetic studies include broccoli, cabbage, green tea, grapes, spinach, soy, fava beans, and the spice turmeric. These foods may protect cells and even reverse cellular changes that can lead to cancer and other diseases.

Truly this is exciting research with far-reaching implications. By combining a plant-based diet with exercise, not smoking, limiting alcohol, maintain a healthy weight, wearing sunscreen, and appropriate cancer screenings, we may be able to greatly reduce our risk of certain cancers.

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