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How to grill out without increasing your cancer risk

As you fire up the outdoor grill this weekend, are you worried that your tasty charbroiled meat may contain carcinogens — chemicals that cause cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, when burgers, steak, chicken, and even hotdogs are grilled or pan-fried at high temperatures (greater than 300 degrees), the melting fat and meat juices can react to form potentially cancer-causing substances on the meat surface. Over the grill, these substances are also formed when meat is charred or burned on the ends, and when meat juices drip down onto the coals and flame up, causing smoke that drifts up onto the meat surface.

These substances are found in high concentrations in well-done, grilled or barbecued chicken and steak, as well as smoked meats.

But don’t let this scare you away from your weekend barbecue.

While there is proven evidence that grilling, smoking or pan frying meats can create carcinogens — therefore increasing the risk for cancer — there still is not enough data to say how dangerous this risk is in humans. We do not know how much grilled meat someone must eat to increase the risk for cancer.

The studies that have proven an increased risk of cancer are all in animals with no other environmental exposures. These animals received exposures thousands of times more than the average exposure a human receives in eating grilled or smoked meats. 

While studies have shown an increase in cancer in people who eat a lot of grilled and fried foods, we must also consider the type of meat they are eating, especially its fat content, which also may increase cancer risk.

So with grilled meat, just as with anything else, moderation is key. 

  • Don’t eat grilled or smoked meat every day. 
  • Never eat charred meat, as this has the highest amount of carcinogens. 
  • Be aware of your other lifestyle choices: If you are outside without sunscreen, smoking a cigarette, while you grill dinner, yes, your risk for cancer is going to be much higher!

The National Cancer Institute offers these additional tips for minimizing carcinogens when grilling out:    

  • Choose lean ground beef and lean cuts of meat, trimming off the excess fat
  • Precook meat in the microwave, so you can finish them in less time on the grill
  • Don’t let an open flame touch meat as it cooks
  • Frequently turn meat during cooking, to reduce the amount of cancer-causing chemicals formed by contact with a hot surface.
About Maggie Ward

Maggie Ward is an oncology nurse navigator with the Via Christi Cancer Institute.