Myth: Grilling Meat is a Significant Cancer Risk

Fact:

Whenever the summer grilling season rolls around, there are inevitably news stories raising concerns about whether grilling meat is a cancer risk. This topic has been extensively researched over several years and experts commonly say that, considering the amounts of meat we consume, cancer from compounds formed during grilling, or any high temperature cooking, is not a significant risk. The most common misconception about grilled meat is related to the formation of heterocyclic amines or HCAs when meat is grilled or cooked to very high temperatures. HCAs are classified as carcinogens because some animal studies have found an increased risk of cancer from consuming HCAs. However, typically in those studies, the experimental animals are given doses thousands of times higher than meat eaters would ever be exposed to from grilled meat, and human population studies or epidemiological studies have not shown an increased cancer risk.1

Another compound, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, also has been positioned in the media as a carcinogenic component. PAHs form when fat and juices cause the fire on a grill to flare up. PAHs have been classified as carcinogens in animal studies, but similarly to HCAs, only very high doses, thousands of times higher than typical human consumption, were reported to increase cancer risk.

Research has also shown there are easy steps people can take when grilling to reduce the risk. First, studies have found that marinating meat before grilling virtually eliminates HCA formation.2Secondly, many studies have found that using black pepper and other spices like oregano, garlic, rosemary or thyme also significantly reduce HCA formation.3

For the PAHs, limiting the flare ups on the grill by cooking over more indirect heat greatly reduces risk. Removing charred pieces of meat and flipping the meat more often to reduce charring can also make a big difference in your exposure.4

  1. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19241593
  3. https://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/2017-05/grilling51617.html
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15971410