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Is Charred Meat A Health Risk?

Is Charred Meat A Health Risk?

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Recent studies and government reports suggest that meats cooked at high temps, particularly meat charred over a live fire, can develop harmful carcinogens. But grilling season is just about here, and we want you to enjoy it to the fullest. Grilled meat is deeee-licious, and we wouldn't suggest for a moment that you stop doing it. Maybe just consider these mitigating approaches:

1. They say flipping meat often on a grill substantially lowers the risk of cancer-causing agents developing on the meat. This is kind of serendipitous, because even though for decades we've been told that the secret to great grilled steaks is to flip them only once, letting them sear fully undisturbed on both sides, the new guard of cooking experts (including Cooking Light columnist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt) advise flipping often, in part because the meat cooks and browns more evenly.

2. The National Cancer Institute advises cutting charred bits from your grilled meats and discarding them, since they presumably have the most carcinogens. I'm speaking for myself here, not on behalf of the magazine, but this is a step I'm personally not going to follow. If you feel you should, then by all means do so. But those charred bits are tasty. Those charred bits are the reason I grill meat instead of roast or saute it. And I don't eat grilled meat every day, or even every week, much as I'd like to. Because I eat so few tasty charred bits so rarely, I'm not as concerned about it affecting my overall health. Maybe I should be. I'm not much of a risk-taker, but I'm rolling the dice on this one.

Keep Reading:

The Good and Bad of Grilling Meat (Watch Out for Charring)

Summer is all about grilling, but many folks are concerned about firing up red meats such as beef and lamb. Here’s the low-down on grilling meat.

Grilling is a quick and easy way to whip up a weeknight dinner or entertain friends and family. There are many lean cuts of meat that are easy to grill, including lamb tenderloin, strip steak, flank and rib eye. Nutritionally, red meats like beef and lamb are packed with protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins such as niacin, vitamin B-6 and vitamin B-12.

Marinating meat before grilling helps tenderize and add flavor. Studies have also shown that marinades with little or no sugar also help protect meat from charring and have been shown to reduce heterocyclic aromatic amine (HAA) formation — compounds that have been linked to cancer.

If you love the flavor of charred meat, you may want to reconsider. Charring causes the formation of HAAs, which has been linked to cancer in animal studies. Further, cooking meats over open flames where fat can drip and produce smoke — think grilling — can lead to the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs have also been linked to cancer formation.

Grill to perfection and greatly reduce HAAs and PAHs by monitoring your grill’s heat level and the doneness temperature of meat, poultry and fish when cooking.

Luckily, there are ways to minimize the production of HAAs and PAHs, including:

Don’t press burgers down onto grill grates, where juices can drip and flare.

Cooking meat over a medium flame (as opposed to a high flame) will help prevent the formation of HAAs while still allowing the internal cooking temperature to be reached.

Before cooking, remove meat from the marinade and shake off excess. Use a paper towel to pat dry and help promote even browning.

Avoid sugary glazes and sauces, which can burn easily. If you want to use them, baste the meat the last few minutes on the grill.

Grilling meat is a quick and delicious way to get a meal on the table, however, certain guidelines should be followed in order to help ensure maximum nutrition and minimum cancer risk.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

How to make grilling safer

( -- When the dog days hit Boston, Massachusetts, Stephanie Meyers starts cooking alfresco to keep things cool indoors.

Meyers grills--a lot--and as a nutritionist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she's well aware that charring meat over an open flame produces cancer-causing substances (known as carcinogens) that may be harmful when eaten. So to make grilling healthier, she sticks to the same advice she gives her patients.

"I follow my own tips and grill a lot of veggies," she says. "I've been known to put all kinds of things on the grill just to see what happens." (She's not kidding: Plums, kale and Swiss chard are among some of her favorite past experiments.)

Unlike meat, vegetables don't create carcinogens when they char. But the small cancer risk associated with grilling meat isn't so great that you need to forgo hamburgers, hot dogs and steaks altogether. Taking a few precautions while barbecuing will minimize the health risks without sacrificing that delicious charcoal taste, experts say.

Grilling protein-filled foods such as meat and fish creates two kinds of chemical compounds that may contribute to cancer: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

HCAs form in meat when it's cooked at a high temperature. While frying and broiling produce these chemicals as well, those charred bits at the edges of barbecued meat contain HCAs in their purest state. HCAs, which are also found in cigarette smoke, have been shown to cause cancer in organs including the stomach, colon, liver and skin--but only in animal studies.

It's unclear whether HCAs cause the same problems in people. Still, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that the chemicals are "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens."

PAHs, the second type of compound, are formed when juices from meat drip onto coals or other hot surfaces and create smoke. The smoke contains these carcinogens, which are deposited onto the surface of meat as it swirls around the food.

Colleen Doyle, the director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society, says the risks these two substances pose shouldn't make die-hard grillers put away their oversized utensils for good. "From our perspective, there has not been enough definitive research that would cause us to tell people not to grill at all," she says.

But there are ways to minimize your exposure to carcinogens when grilling, Doyle adds. She recommends cleaning the grill prior to cooking, which will remove any charred debris that may stick to food. And if some parts of the meat you're cooking get badly charred, cut those pieces off.

In addition, precooking food slightly before grilling will help cut down on PAHs. Meyers recommends placing meat in the microwave and zapping it for between 60 seconds (for leaner cuts) and 90 seconds (for thicker, fattier pieces). This reduces the amount of time the food is on the grill and allows some of the juices to drain beforehand.

Certain recipes can make grilling safer as well, according to Meyers. Marinades made with vinegar or lemon act as an "invisible shield" that changes the acidity of the meat and prevents PAHs from sticking, she says. (On the other hand, sugary marinades such as barbecue sauce that encourage charring should be used only during the last one to two minutes on the grill.)

And whenever possible, Meyers recommends grilling vegetables or fruits instead of meat.

The carcinogens in charred meat aren't the only health concern associated with barbecues. Though for many people the smell of a juicy steak wafting from the grill is synonymous with the onset of summer, the smoke that carries the aroma is less desirable.

A 2003 report from researchers at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, found that grilling creates "ambient fine particulate matter"--air pollution, in other words. Although backyard barbecues add far less pollution to the atmosphere than cars and factories, this particulate matter can still cause problems. In concentrated amounts, the smoke from a grill can trigger respiratory trouble in people with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

"Anyone who is sensitive to smoke should avoid exposure to a grill--or fire, or trucks," says Paul Billings, the vice president of advocacy at the American Lung Association. "They should protect themselves by limiting their exposure to whatever the source is that irritates their lungs."

Billings recommends cooking over natural gas or propane grills to reduce the pollution emitted. If you own a charcoal grill, using a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid will also keep you from inhaling harmful chemicals, he says.

Buying lean cuts of meat, trimming off most of the fat and wrapping foods like fish in a foil packet will all help cut down on smoke by reducing the amount of juices that drip onto the grill.

Although at-home chefs should always try to grill as safely as possible, Meyers emphasizes that you shouldn't let the health risks of barbecuing spoil your appetite.

"Keep the risk in perspective," she says. "Grilled foods are not the greatest cancer risk--not wearing sunscreen while at the grill is a bigger deal. If you like to grill, put meat on the grill and use the safety tips."

Are You Cooking Meat? Higher Temps = Higher BP Risk

You may have heard that eating grilled meat that is charred can put you at higher risk for high blood pressure. But it’s not just outdoor cooking that’s the culprit. Any high-temperature cooking — grilling, roasting or broiling — can increase your chances of developing hypertension.

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“When you cook the meat to high temp and you char it, there’s a certain chemical that starts to form that may lead to high blood pressure over time,” says preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD.

Identifying a link

Researchers confirmed the link between high-temperature cooking and high blood pressure in a study that followed more than a 100,000 people over the course of 12 to 16 years. The results show that those who frequently cooked red meat, fish or chicken at higher temperatures were more likely to develop high blood pressure.

“The people who had the highest risk were grilling 15 times a month — that’s every other day,” Dr. Ahmed says. The study found that those in this group had a 17 percent higher risk of hypertension than those who cooked their meat at high temperatures only four times per month.

The cooking method wasn’t the only factor that boosted hypertension risk. The study also found that those who ate the most charred meat had a 17 percent higher risk of high blood pressure. Those who ate their meat well-done boosted their risk by 15 percent.

Why it matters

High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, strokes, or kidney and heart failure, but generally has no symptoms. Even if you aren’t aware you have it, it can still damage your heart and blood vessels.

That’s why it’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly and to understand what the numbers tell you about your heart health. If you do have high blood pressure, getting it under control can help you reduce your overall risk of heart disease or other life-threatening conditions.

The bottom line

If you’re wondering whether you should toss out your grill (or broiling pan), the short answer is no. Moderation is the key.

Dr. Ahmed says you don’t need to give up open-flame cooking and other high-temp methods completely. But it is a good idea to limit how often you grill your meat — maybe once or twice a week — and try to avoid charring. He also recommends cutting down on red meat in general, which typically comes with more sodium.

From Dr. Ahmed’s perspective in his focus on prevention, you should aim for a comprehensive approach to managing all the risk factors for high blood pressure — from being overweight to having a sedentary lifestyle. It’s important to develop lifestyle changes that emphasize exercise, a healthy diet and stress reduction, he says.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Grilling: What’s the Worry?

Almost everyone associates backyard barbecuing, grilled burgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob and slices of succulent watermelon with summer.People grill burgers, drumsticks or other meats during tailgates, beach days and more.

But research has shown that there may be some potential health risks to eating grilled meats. In some cases, researchers found that frequent, heightened consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. What causes that risk?

During exposure to high temperatures, certain chemicals (known as HCAs and PAHs) are formed in meat that pose a health risk in the long term. Some research shows the charred parts of meats pose a threat, as well as smoke from juice and fat dripping into a heat source.

Exposure to smoke and char creates carcinogens which may increase one’s risk of developing cancer. If you have a family history of cancer or just want to reduce your risk, you can learn to grill in healthier ways (check some out below!) or simply choose other methods for cooking favorite summer meals.

While these studies are cause for concern, it’s also relevant to note that the levels of chemicals exposed to mice in trials were a much higher concentration than the levels found in our food. Additionally, everyone’s metabolic process is different when it comes to breaking down food and nutrients. However, reducing your exposure to grilled and charred foods this summer is a great way to eat healthier and err on the safe side.

How Can You Reduce the Acrylamide That You Eat?

If you want to decrease the amount of acrylamide in your diet, avoid potato chips, French fries, and any other potato product that is cooked at high temperature. This includes processed potato products.

When you cook potatoes at home, soaking them in cold water for half an hour before you cook them can reduce the amount of acrylamide that is produced during cooking.

Boiling and steaming seems to be safer than frying, grilling, and roasting.

Don't overcook your carbohydrate, because the blacker it is, the more acrylamide is in it.

Acrylamide occurs in plant-based, high-carbohydrate foods such as potatoes and grains, so avoid cooking those foods at high temperatures.

The health beef over barbecued meat

Meat on the grill is as much a part of the Fourth of July as fireworks and American flags. But it is also reputed to increase cancer risk in unsuspecting patriots, thanks in part to chemical compounds formed when meats containing muscle — including beef, pork, poultry and fish — are cooked at very high temperatures.

The class of chemicals known as heterocyclic amines, or HCAs for short, were first discovered in the 1970s by Japanese scientists, who noted that compounds in the charred parts of cooked fish and meat were capable of damaging cellular and bacterial DNA in test tube experiments.

In studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, the compounds — more than 10 different HCAs have been identified so far — caused tumors in mice, rats and monkeys.

The news that charred meats contained potentially cancer-causing compounds piqued scientists’ interest: It offered one explanation of a link researchers had found between meat consumption and an increased risk of certain types of cancer, said Geoffrey Kabat, a cancer epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

In the last decade, a handful of studies in humans populations began to suggest that HCAs might be behind the observed association between meat consumption and cancers of the pancreas, prostate andcolon.

Two studies led by Kristin Anderson, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, compared the meat consumption of people with pancreatic cancer with that of healthy people, and found that the risk of pancreatic cancer was more than doubled in people who ate the most barbecued and fried meats (particularly red meats) compared with those who ate the least. The studies were published in 2002 and 2005.

“We can’t say for certain that [HCAs] are bad actors, but the evidence looks very strong that they may be,” Anderson said.

A 2005 report by researchers at the National Cancer Institute looked at the relationship between meat consumption and prostate cancer in the more than 29,000 men enrolled in the national Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial. They found that men who consumed more than 10 grams (about one-third of an ounce) per day of very well-done meats, including steak, bacon, sausage, pork chop and hamburger, had a 40% higher risk of prostate cancer compared with people who never ate well-done meat.

And a 2009 study of more than 175,000 adult men who were followed for nine years found that consuming barbecued and grilled red or processed meats was linked to a roughly 10% increase in the risk of prostate cancer.

In 2007, a report by the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research concluded there that was not enough evidence to link HCAs to an increased risk of the disease. But last year, researchers at the National Cancer Institute found (from a study tracking more than 2,000 people for more than 7 years) that those who consumed the most of two HCAs found in well-done barbecued hamburgers — MeIQx and DiMeIQx — had a roughly 20% higher risk of colon cancer compared with those who consumed the least.

But all of these studies are observational, which means that they can’t yet prove a link between charred meat consumption and cancer. “There is no smoking gun,” Kabat said.

“It’s not like evidence for smoking and lung cancer, or even estrogen therapy and endometrial cancer,” where large, long-term studies consistently showed a very strong link between exposure and disease, Kabat said.

The HCA theory is just one of several that could explain the association between meat consumption and elevated cancer risk, said Marji McCullough, a nutritional epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

Nitrites, found in processed meats, are known carcinogens. Heme iron (also called free iron), found in meat, produces free radicals that may damage cells and trigger cancer. Meats cooked at high temperatures also contain compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are known carcinogens.

As scientists try to sort this out, there are a number of ways to reduce the HCA content of cooked meat.

For example, Anderson said, reducing time on the grill and temperature can cut down on HCA formation. She also recommends wrapping meat in foil before barbecuing it, keeping it away from direct flames, and cooking it for the minimum time necessary.

Studies have shown that microwaving meat for a few minutes prior to barbecuing can cut down on the number of HCAs produced by as much as 90%. Marinating also reduces HCA formation, although scientists are not sure why, McCullough said.

McCullough offered another piece of advice: cutting back on meat by grilling tofu, vegetables or kebabs made with small pieces of meat combined with vegetables.

She added that there are several well-established ways to prevent cancer, including quitting smoking, getting screened for colon cancer and adopting a healthy diet. These, she said, will do far more for people’s health than getting overly concerned about a barbecue meal on one special day of the year.

Does grilling meat cause cancer?

Before we get started, let’s address a question that tends to pop up frequently with my clients: does grilling meat cause cancer? The answer to that, in the simplest terms, is no. Cancer is not caused by any one thing, but the more and more we know about it, it seems to result from a complex array of factors that allow cancer cells (which are living in almost all of us) to proliferate in an out of control fashion without our immune systems being able to stop the proliferation.

That said, one component of this “complex array of factors” is a buildup of carcinogens in our bodies, and charred food from the grill can form carcinogens. In fact, grilling meat can form two types of carcinogens: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when animal muscle meat is cooked at high temperatures, on a grill or otherwise, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when animal fat drips onto a flame, and the chemicals formed rise back up through steam and soak into the meat.

Sounds scary, but there are many things we can do to prevent this, including:

  • Add herbs to your meat prior to grilling. Research shows that marinating meat with an herb-based rub can reduce HCA formation by 87%. This research showed particular benefits from rosemary and / or thyme, but also showed significant benefits with basil, mint, sage, oregano, savory, and marjoram.
  • Marinate meat in vinegar- or lemon juice-based marinade prior to grilling. Marinating in almost anything has been shown to reduce carcinogenic formations, but marinades containing lemon juice or vinegar have been shown to be particularly effective.
  • Skip the char. I HATE this one (really!), because those charred bits are super tasty. But they are also the most carcinogenic, so it would be wise to limit the char. In fact, even without char, well-done meat shows far higher carcinogen content than rare meat, so serve your meat as rare as you enjoy it.
  • Save anything with sugar until the very end (or avoid it all together). Sugar in a marinade can cause meat to char more, so it is recommended to save any sauce containing sugar until the last 2 minutes of grilling.
  • Don’t place meat directly above flame, so the drippings can’t mix directly with the flame and cause PAHs. Or, grill on a cedar plank, for the same reason.
  • Remember that processed meats come with higher cancer risk, regardless of the cooking method. See #5 in this post for more, and try to limit grilling things like sausages and hot dogs for this reason.

While I love providing you with the science behind all of this, I also don’t want you to panic if you love charred meat every once in a while, or don’t use a marinade. To be honest, even though I know all of this, I don’t follow the guidelines every time. As I said, I know cancer is a buildup of a complex array of factors, and I am highly confident that I’m treating my body as well as I can. My personal decision is to do what I can, and not stress about the rest, but I hope you make your own personal decision after being equipped with the knowledge!

One bit of good news, so you don’t worry about my beloved veggies … vegetables don’t contain the combination of creatine and amino acids necessary to create HCAs, and don’t have fat drippings to cause PAHs, so enjoy them freely!

Cancer Experts Issue Warning on Grilling Safety

WASHINGTON, DC – Cooking meat at high temperatures is known to produce cancer-causing chemicals. At the start of the grilling season, experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) are warning about the hidden health hazards of cookouts and campfires, and suggesting how grilling can be made safer.

“Research shows that diets high in red and processed meat increase risk for colon cancer,” said AICR’s Senior Director of Nutrition Programs, Alice Bender. “And grilling meat, red or white, at high temperatures forms potent cancer-causing substances. But by keeping five simple steps in mind, it is possible to make this summer’s backyard grilling both healthier and more flavorful.”

Step One: Mix Up the Meat
The first thing to understand is that the meat you choose to grill is just as important as how you grill it. Diets high in red meat (beef, pork and lamb), are linked to increased risk for colon cancer regardless of how you cook it. And even small amounts of processed meat (hot dogs, sausages) ramp up the risk.

So, don’t get stuck on steak, burgers and franks get creative with fish and chicken, using spices, herbs, hot peppers and sauces to liven up tender chunks of white meat. Remember, AICR recommends no more than modest quantities of red meat (12-18oz per week).

Step Two: Marinate, Marinate, Marinate
Charring and cooking meat, poultry and fish under high heat causes compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to form. These substances have shown the ability to damage our DNA in ways that make cancer more likely.

Studies have shown that marinating meat, poultry and fish for at least 30 minutes can reduce the formation of HCAs. Using a mixture that includes vinegar, lemon juice or wine along with oil, herbs and spices seems to be the key. Marinating the meat has a bigger impact on reducing HCA formation than reducing cooking temperature. Scientists are still investigating precisely how these marinades help lower HCAs, but it’s possible that compounds in these ingredients are responsible.

Step Three: Partially Pre-Cook
PAHs are deposited onto the meat by smoke. By reducing the amount of time meat spends exposed to flame by first partially cooking it in a microwave, oven or stove, you can reduce the amount of PAHs you generate and ingest.

(Be sure to place the partially cooked meat on the preheated grill immediately. This helps keep it safe from bacteria and other food pathogens that can cause illness.)

Step Four: Stay Low
Cook the meat over a low flame. Doing so can reduce the formation of both HCAs and PAHs, and help keep burning and charring to a minimum.

Reduce flare-ups by keeping fat and juices out of the fire: cut visible fat off the meat, move coals to the side of the grill and cook your meat in the center of the grill. Finally, cut off any charred portions of the meat before serving.

Step Five: Throw Some Color on the Grill
Grilled vegetables taste great! And by loading up on plant foods, you can cut back on red and processed meats. Colorful vegetables and fruits contain fiber, vitamins and naturally occurring compounds called phytochemicals. These substances add anti-cancer action to your backyard bash.

Try onions, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers or tomatoes in thick slices on the grill, in a grill basket or in chunks for kebabs. Another favorite: corn on the cob. Grilling brings out the sweetness in veggies, so even reluctant veggie eaters can find something to love.

AICR Impact

The American Institute for Cancer Research helps the public understand the relationship between lifestyle, nutrition and cancer risk. We work to prevent cancer through innovative research, community programs and impactful public health initiatives.

Grilling Tips for Cancer Prevention – Healthy BBQ

The enticing aroma of food being cooked on a backyard BBQ grill. The sizzle of the steak on the grill makes your mouth water and you can’t wait to bite into the crunchy, charred coating on the food that is hot off the grill.

But we know by now that any foods or cooking methods that we love the most are the ones that are bad for our health. Including grilling. Grilling the ‘old fashioned’ way actually increases the risk for certain cancers. Cancer prevention and healthier BBQ cooking work hand in hand with the following grilling tips.

HCA’s, heterocyclic amines, are cancer causing substances found in meats grilled at high temperatures. By lowering the grilling temperature you lower the amount of HCA’s in the grilled meat.

Grilling meat to no more than medium-rare doneness also lowers the amount of HCA’s. Eating well done or charred meat from a grill can increase the risk of stomach cancer three times to that of eating medium-rare meat cooked at a low grill temperature.

Most of us grillers were always taught to only flip a hamburger once during grilling to avoid meat toughness. Now we are told to flip hamburgers often while grilling to lower the amount of HCA’s and promote cancer prevention.

Taking the healthier BBQ cooking a step farther in cancer prevention is adding tofu to your lean ground beef prior to grilling it. The added tofu to the lean ground beef almost completely eradicates the formation of HCA’s in grilled hamburgers.

Lean ground beef and removing the fat from other cuts of beef is essential for healthier BBQ cooking for cancer prevention by reducing the risk of grill flare-ups caused from dripping meat fats. PAH’s, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are carcinogens deposited on grilled food when a flare-up occurs while fatty meat is cooking on the grill.

Those bursts of grill fire that elicit squeals from onlookers and provide a charred crunch on the outside of grilled foods are not conducive to cancer prevention.

Healthier BBQ cooking that requires fat-less meat grilled at lower temperatures for cancer prevention sounds like a bland, tough and under cooked meal.

Marinate your meat (and veggies) before grilling using your favorite marinade. A thin coating of marinade on meat will prevent over half of the HCA’s during grilling. Marinades add flavor and tenderize grill meats.

Use antioxidant herbs as flavorings for your food prior to grilling. Herbs like rosemary and sage add a punch of flavor and aroma to grilling and reduce the HCA’s. Good old garlic will too. Any use of an antioxidant herbs or foods will aid in cancer prevention.

Finally, you can opt out of meat and try something else:

Pre-cooking your grill meat in the microwave will speed up the grilling time on the lower temperature grill setting and prevent almost all of the HCA’s in the meat. A two minute microwave pre-cook provides quicker and healthier BBQ cooking.