BBQ and Colorectal Cancer: What’s the Connection?


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Hold the Carcinogens! How to Safely BBQ This Summer

Nothing says “summer” like the inviting aroma of a BBQ. But a number of studies have found that red meat and processed meats — the hamburgers, steaks, and hot dogs of summer backyard BBQs — increase risk for colon and rectal cancer. Grilling those meats at high temperatures makes the risk even higher.

Reduce Cancer Risk

  • Grill fish and skinless chicken breasts, rather than red or processed meat.
  • If you grill meat, choose lean cuts. Cuts with “loin” in their name, such as tenderloin or loin chops are the leanest, along with round steaks.
  • Keep meat portions small by cutting them into chunks, such as kabobs.
  • Serve any meat as an accent to a meal of plant-based foods, not as the main attraction.
  • Precook or marinate meat and grill at low temperatures.
  • Flip meats often during cooking to reduce the chemicals that cause cancer, which are produced by high heat.

Eating more fruits and vegetables can reduce the chances of getting cancer. Grilling fruits and vegetables is safe and can be an interesting new way to include them in your diet. Brush them lightly with olive or canola oil to prevent sticking.

Marinating Meat Can Reduce Carcinogens

Did you know that marinating meat before grilling may reduce some carcinogens that are connected with cancer? Kansas State University food technology researchers marinated round steaks in three different commercial marinade mixes containing different spice blends including Caribbean, Southwest, and herb. They then grilled the steaks at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Grilling meat at high heat produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), both of which have been associated with an increase in colorectal polyps (adenomas).

The Caribbean spice mixture reduced the level of HCAs by 88%, the herb marinade by 72%, and the Southwest by 57%.

An analysis showed significant levels of the antioxidants carnosic acid, carnosol, and rosmarinic acid, which are also found in the herbs rosemary, oregano, and sage. The research team attributes the reduction in HCAs to these antioxidants. The highest level of the antioxidants was found in the Caribbean mix.

Dr. J.S. Smith, principal researcher at Kansas State said, “Commercial marinades offer spices and herbs, which have antioxidants that help decrease the HCAs formed during grilling. The results from our study have a direct application since more consumers are interested in healthier cooking.” Dr. Smith also recommends cooking foods at lower temperatures so that they don’t become burnt.

More recently, Dr. Smith and his team “found that black pepper nearly eliminates the formation of heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which can form on the surface of meat when it is cooked.”

The Scoop on High Heat

Another step you can take to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer is to turn down the heat! The National Cancer Institute warns to use caution when firing up the grill. Studies suggest that eating large amounts of well-done, fried, or bbq meats (beef, pork, fish, and poultry) is associated with the increase of colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer.

Cooking meat over an open flame increases exposure to HCAs and PAHs, which may lead to DNA changes. DNA change increases your risk for cancer. Currently there are no federal guidelines that note specifics around consumption of HCAs and PAHs – for example, how much is safe to eat.

Should I Avoid BBQs?

You don't need to steer clear of a BBQ altogether. Reducing your red and processed meat consumption is recommended, but those do not need to be completely cut from your diet either. Rather, it’s better to eat a varied diet and cut back on eating well-done, fried, or BBQ meats. Don’t forget to toss some vegetables and fruit on the grill too. They’re safe to eat and good for you!

How Can I Reduce Exposure to the Chemicals?

The National Cancer Institute suggests the following ways to avoid exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals found in cooked meats:

  • Avoid direct exposure of meat to an open flame.
  • Continuously turn over when cooking.
  • Remove and discard charred parts of meat.
  • Don’t use gravy made from meat drippings.

The bottom line is this -- have fun, enjoy your BBQs, but do so in moderation. Avoid high-temperatures when grilling and be sure to mix in some fruits and veggies.