Reader Question: “I read somewhere that cooking meats over high temperatures can create compounds that cause cancer. Is that true?” Our clinical nutritionist, Morgan has the answer!
While backyard grilling seems like an All-American activity, grilled meats have been consumed for centuries in the furthest-flung corners of the world. From Africa to China and to South America and the UK, grilling was, perhaps, the original cooking method, with little more needed than a flame and something to eat. And in this case? That something was meat.
With cultural and regional delicacies varying according to culture and geography, it’s difficult to ascertain the health qualities of a general “grilled meal”. However, in recent years, concerns over compounds in grilled meats across the board have risen concerns over the potential carcinogenicity of grilled meats. Two compounds in particular- HCAs and PAHs, are related to mutations that may increase risk for cancer.
What are Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)?
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when meat (beef, pork, fish, or poultry) is exposed to high-temperature during cooking. , In laboratory experiments, HCAs and PAHs have been found to have mutagenic properties,causing changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.
HCAs are formed when amino acids, sugars, and creatine react at high heat. PAHs, on the other hand, are formed when fat and juices from meat exposed to an open flame drip into the fire, causing flames. The flames themselves contain PAHs that “stick” to the surface of the finished product. Grilling aside, PAHs are also formed during other preparation methods, including smoking (bacon, sausage, jerky, etc).
Interestingly, HCAs are not found readily in any significant amount other than in meat cooked at high temperatures. PAHs, however, are found in other charred foods, cigarette smoke, and car exhaust.
Animal experiments have shown that exposure to HCAs and PAHs can cause cancers of the breasts, colon, liver, skin, lung, and prostate. Numerous studies utilizing dietary questionnaires surrounding meat consumption and cooking method have been used to estimate exposure to HCAs and PAHs in free-living human subjects. Results of these studies have consistently shown that regular consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats is associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.
Are there ways to reduce HCA and PAH formation?
Yes; cooking method and degree of “doneness” both affect the amount of PAH and HCA in meat products. To reduce exposure to HCA and PAH, avoid or limit direct exposure of meat to an open flame, and avoid prolonged cooking time at high temperature. Avoid “charring” meat, and continuously flip meat to avoid overcooking/charring any one area. Remove any charred portions of your finished product and refrain from consuming gravies or sauces that contain meat drippings.