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Harmful Chemicals in Grilled Meats Cause Cancer

Grilling meats over charcoal might be tasty, but could increase your risk of cancer.

©iStockphoto.com/Diane Diederich

Cancer Myth 2: Regularly eating meat cooked on a charcoal grill won't increase cancer risk.

Respondents Who Agreed: 56 percent

Origin of Myth: Nutrition advice in the media has been contradictory about the health effects of grilled meats. Compared with frying in oil, grilling or baking meats avoids adding extra fat and associated calories to the meal. But chemists have found grilling meats creates chemicals linked to cancer in animals.

Reality: You can increase your cancer risk by eating too much grilled red meat or chicken or even meat pan-fried at a very high temperature. Meat or chicken that is well-done or burnt appears to be the most problematic.

Based on the existing research, the best approach may be to enjoy grilled meats occasionally, but not on a regular basis. This is a judgment call, but it makes sense to limit your exposure to carcinogens (chemicals linked to cancer), which are found in these grilled meats.

The worrisome chemicals created by grilling meats are called heterocyclic amines (HAs). They form during grilling, broiling or even searing meat in a very hot frying pan — when the very high temperatures break down the amino acid creatinine. There is also some concern that fats from the meat dripping onto coals create additional chemicals in smoke that may land back on the meat.

When you do grill or broil meat, you can minimize your consumption of unhealthful chemicals in a few ways:

  • Don't eat blackened or burnt parts.
  • Precook meats in the oven or microwave, and then finish on the grill for just a few minutes.
  • Substitute grilled vegetables or fruits for part of the meat in your meal.
  • Eat smaller portions of grilled meats.

Many of the chemicals created when meat is grilled are not formed during the grilling of vegetables or fruits, so people can enjoy grilled flavor without unhealthful chemicals. Fruits and vegetables that work well on the grill include onions, green and red bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, pineapple, papaya or mango. Skewers that alternate small bites of meat with vegetables or fruit are an easy way to maximize flavor and minimize unhealthful chemicals. Don't substitute processed (luncheon) meats for grilled meat, though. Processed meats contain different kinds of carcinogens that may be even more harmful.

What you eat is even more important than how it's cooked. The best advice is to follow a diet in which foods from plant sources predominate.

For more information, the ACS book Cancer: What Causes It, What Doesn't provides an educated perspective on what cancer health hazards people may face in everyday life, and what's not worth worrying about.

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