Barbecue with caution to reduce risk of cancer

Labor Day is just ahead, and who doesn't salivate at the aroma of steak on the grill?

A word of warning from the National Cancer Institute: Grilled meat can increase cancer risk, and wise grilling practices can reduce that risk.

Dr. Tom Kummet, director of medical oncology at Olympic Medical Cancer Center, said, "Longer times at lower temperatures are considered a safer way to do barbecues." The areas of meat that are "well-done and crispy" are the greatest concern for cancer risk, Kummet said.

The culprit, according to research in the U.S., Japan and Europe, is a heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, a carcinogenic chemical formed when muscle meats (beef, pork, fowl and fish) cook at high temperatures.

Researchers found that people who ate beef medium-well or well-done or ate beef more than four times a week had significantly higher risk of stomach cancer as those who ate rare and medium-rare beef or ate it less frequently.

Other studies connected increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancer with high consumption of well-done, fried or barbecued meats.

Scientists have not established what level of these chemicals poses a health risk, but they are known to be carcinogens, and there is general agreement that limiting them is a good thing.

Four factors - the type of food, cooking method, temperature and time - influence the formation of carcinogens. Adjustments in those four areas can make barbecue cooking a healthier option.

Type of food

Many foods can be grilled without forming carcinogens. Vary the grill menu with marinated vegetables or fruits such as pineapple slices, peaches or figs. Veggie burgers, pizza and tofu also can be cooked on the grill.

Be sure to start with a clean grill. Lean, well-trimmed meats help avoid flare-ups from dripping fats, which can deposit other carcinogens on cooking food.

Cooking method

In tests, meat that was microwaved for two minutes prior to grilling had a 90-percent decrease in HCAs. According to an article published by the Washington State University Extension in Skagit County, marinating meats before grilling greatly reduces the production of carcinogens.

Use about 1/2 cup of marinate per pound of meat.

Smaller pieces of meat cook more quickly, so the outer layer does not char before cooking is finished. Turning meat frequently, as often as once every minute, also speeds the cooking process and prevents burning.


In one study, researchers found a three-fold increase in HCA levels when the cooking temperature was increased from 392 degrees to 482 degrees.

Stewing, boiling and poaching all produce negligible amounts of HCAs. Frying, broiling and barbecuing form the largest amounts of HCAs because of the high cooking temperatures.

Placing the grill farther from the coals helps reduce grilling temperature. Precooking meats at a lower temperature and finishing them on the grill can give the flavor with less likelihood of developing carcinogens.

Before serving, trim off any charred or burned areas from the meat.


Meats cooked a long time, even if the temperatures are not extremely high, will form slightly more HCAs. However they will not develop the high levels of HCAs found in high-temperature cooked meats.

Reach Sandra Frykholm at sfrykholm@sequim

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 20
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates