Summer is our national grilling season, and some of us like our burgers, hot dogs, and vegetables charred. But that flavor profile includes the risk of carcinogens.
What’s a grillmaster to do? We asked a Columbia cancer researcher how to avoid creating potentially cancer-promoting agents. Here’s what she said:
Does grilling cause cancer?
There is no straight line between eating food cooked on a grill and getting cancer, but cooking over an open flame can lead to the development of carcinogens in meat.
If you are at higher risk for getting cancer, your risk may increase from these sorts of exposures, says cancer epidemiologist Mary Beth Terry, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and associate director for community cancer prevention at Columbia’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center.
What is a carcinogen?
A carcinogen is a substance, product, or chemical that can cause cancer. Carcinogens do not guarantee cancer, and their effect varies in each person.
Grilling can create cancer-causing chemicals
When cooking over high heat, especially on an open flame, you are exposed to two main carcinogens: heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Studies show HCAs and PAHs cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.
- HCAs develop in meat when amino acids and creatine (muscle proteins) react to high heat. Time is your enemy: The amount of HCAs increases the longer meat is exposed to the heat.
- PAHs are chemicals produced as fat burns in the flame and can attach to meat cooking over an open fire. When grilling, you’re also exposed to PAHs in smoke. (Cigarette smoke and air pollution also contain PAHs, which partly explains why smoking and air pollution are linked to different cancers).
The good news about grilling: Vegetables do not have muscle proteins, but excessive charring can create benzopyrene and other carcinogens.
Carcinogens and moderation
“At any stage of your life you can reduce your risk of future cancer,” says Terry. Carcinogens can change your DNA, but your DNA has repair mechanisms working all the time. The fewer repairs these mechanisms have to make, the less chance you’ll get cancer.
“It’s easier for your body to repair damage if your intake and exposure is slower,” says Terry. “So don’t have four alcoholic drinks or four charred burgers at once.”
Informal ways to consider your personal cancer risk
Think about your family history and occupation. Cancer risk is higher for people in certain professions because of exposure to carcinogens, such as firefighters exposed to smoke and flames.
How to reduce the risk of cancer when grilling
- Shorten grill time.
- Reduce the time that meat is exposed to extreme heat and flames by marinating and/or partially cooking with another heat source (oven, microwave, pan) before grilling.
- Smaller cuts of food also spend less time on the grill.
- Shorten flame exposure time.
- Flip food frequently and cook on the most indirect heat (yes, this means gas grills may be safer).
- Eat more vegetables.
- See “no muscle proteins” above.
- Don’t binge eat BBQ.
- If you have too much of something in a short time, it’s not easy for your body to metabolize. Limit how much and how often you eat grilled and smoked meat.
The risk of cancer varies per person. The bottom line when it comes to grilling, says Terry: Don’t grill every meal. And when you do cook on the grill, eat less charred food and meat. You reduce risk by not doing something all the time.
Mary Beth Terry, Ph.D., is a professor of epidemiology in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, co-leader of Cancer Population Sciences, and associate director for community cancer prevention at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, the home for cancer research and patient care at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.