Food and drink

Grilling Meat: Is It a Cancer Risk?

The Bottom Line

There is some evidence that people who eat a lot of charred or very well done meat have a higher risk of cancer, particularly of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, and pancreas. To minimize the potential risks, minimize both the amount of time that meat is cooked at high heat and the amount of smoke in contact with the meat.

The Full Story

Could eating a lot of grilled meat cause cancer? The research says…maybe.

It is known that meats cooked at high temperatures, for example by frying or barbecuing, produce compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are associated with cancers in animals. There is some evidence that people who eat a lot of charred or very well done meat have a higher risk of cancer, particularly of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, and pancreas.

It is also known that when fat drips down onto hot coals, the resulting smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The smoke can deposit PAHs onto the food being grilled. There is some evidence that people who work with PAHs have an increased risk of lung, skin, and bladder cancer.

Fortunately, there are simple steps that can minimize the potential risks of eating grilled meats while maintaining the smoky flavor that so many people enjoy. The keys are to minimize both the amount of time that meat is cooked at high heat and the amount of smoke in contact with the meat. In at least one study, marinating meat with commercial mixtures of herbs and spices reduced the amount of HCAs in the cooked steak.

Here are some tips:

  • Use lean meat. Trim all visible fat.
  • Consider marinating the meat with herbs and spices.
  • Microwave meat until nearly done before putting it on the grill.
  • Place meat on foil with some holes poked into it to minimize the amount of fat dripping onto the heat source.
  • Don't eat charred portions of meat.

And remember: vegetables can be grilled, too. They do not generate HCAs or PAHs. They taste good when grilled and they are good for you!

Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Clinical Toxicologist


For More Information

American Cancer Society: A Backyard Chef's Guide to Healthy Grilling

National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet: Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk


References

Cross AJ, Ferrucci LM, Risch A, Gruabard BI, Ward MH, Park Y, Hollenbeck AR, Schatzkin A, Sinha R. A large prospective study of meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: an investigation of potential mechanisms underlying this association. Cancer Res. 2010;70:2406-14.

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Kabat GC, Cross AJ, Park Y, Schatzkin A, Hollenbeck AR, Rohan TE, Sinha R. Meat intake and meat preparation in relation to risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in the NIH-AARP diet and health study. Int J Cancer. 2009;124:2430-2335.

Lee JE, Spiegelman D, Hunter DJ, Albanes D, Bernstein L, van den Brandt PA, Buring JE, et. al. Fat, protein, and meat consumption and renal cell cancer risk: a pooled analysis of 13 prospective studies. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2008;100:1695-1706.

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Nöthlings U, Yamamoto JF, Wilkens LR, Murphy SP, Park S-Y, Henderson BE, Kolonel LN, Le Marchand L. Meat and heterocyclic amine intake, smoking, NAR1 and NAT2 polymorphisms, and colorectal cancer risk in the multiethnic cohort study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009;18:2098-2106.

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Rodriguez C, McCullough ML, Mondul AM, Jacobs EJ, Chao A, Paten AV, Thun MJ, Calle EE. Meat consumption among black and white men and risk of prostate cancer in the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2006;15:211-6.

Rohrmann S, Zoller D, Hermann S, Linseisen J. Intake of heterocyclic aromatic amines from meat in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Heidelberg cohort. British Journal of Nutrition. 2007;98:1112-1115.


Smith JS, Ameri F, Gadgil P. Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. J Food Science. 2008;73:T100-T105.

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Prevention Tips

When grilling meat:

  • Use lean meat. 
  • Trim all visible fat. 
  • Consider marinating the meat with herbs and spices. 
  • Microwave meat until nearly done before putting it on the grill. 
  • Place meat on foil with some holes poked into it to minimize the amount of fat dripping onto the heat source. 
  • Don't eat charred portions of meat.