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Health Answers

Are there health risks associated with too much grilling?

By Courtney Humphries
July 12, 2010

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Q. Is it true that cooking foods on the grill has health risks and, if so, what’s a safe level of consumption?

A. Firing up a grill and gathering for an outdoor barbecue is one of summer’s greatest pleasures. Grilling has also gained popularity as a health strategy, offering intense flavor without the fat of other cooking methods. But concern has been raised that grilling has a dark side: a higher risk of cancer.

The worries stem from two substances that are released when meat is charred or burnt over very high heat and an open flame: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are produced in meat during the cooking process, while PAHs are formed when fat drips from the meat onto the heat source, and are transferred back to the meat through smoke. The compounds occur in poultry and fish as well as red meats, but not in vegetables. Both substances can alter DNA, potentially leading to cancer. The body tries to flush these chemicals out, but its own mechanisms for getting rid of them can actually make them more potent.

In animal studies, these compounds are known to cause several kinds of cancer. It’s less clear that they lead to cancer in humans at levels found in a typical diet. Rashmi Sinha, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, says that consuming a high level of fried, well-done, or barbecued meats has been linked to higher incidence of colorectal cancer, and there is some evidence suggesting a link to pancreatic, prostate, kidney, and stomach cancers. “However, we need results from other large prospective studies to confirm our findings,’’ she says.

Alice Bender, a registered dietician at the American Institute for Cancer Research, says that because the evidence is still unclear, there are no recommendations for a safe level of grilling. But she says it makes sense to limit your exposure to potentially harmful substances. And lovers of well-done burgers beware: It’s best to grill at lower temperatures for less time (being careful not to undercook the meat) and avoid charring or browning.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the Health Answers column previously misidentified Alice Bender of the American Institute for Cancer Research. She is a registered dietician.