Cooking meat at High Temperatures Promotes Cancers

If you love a great barbeque then you probably like the burned bits that give char grilled food its distinctive flavor. But If you want to reduce your cancer risk you might have to give up that flavorsome burned steak flavor and train your taste buds to like other flavors instead.  Meat, including white meats contain proteins such as creatinine, other  amino acids, and sugars. When these components of meat are cooked at high temperatures then a reaction results causing heterocyclic amines (HCA)  and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons  (PAH) to form.  And if you read about the concerns with prostate cancer and DHA you might like to know a new study published April 2011 found that red meat, but not white meat cooked at high temperatures was associated with risk of advanced prostate cancer.

Now that’s not to let you off the hook and suggest that its fine to barbeque and grill chicken turkey and fish until its nice and charred on the outside. Those meats still create the carcinogens, and are associated with stomach, pancreatic breast and colon cancers.   I am not a proponent of unlimited amounts of meat.  Eating a varied diet that includes beans, lentils, rice, and other non animal forms of protein is protective in a whole lot of ways and you can live a very healthy life without ever eating meat, but the fact is that historically humans have thrived on animal products.  Limited amounts of good quality animal product.  Not the way we eat today from farmed meats and poultry….but I’m off on a tangent and don’t want to go there today.

How you prepare your meat can make a lot of difference. There are a couple of things you can do.  Slow cooking at lower temperatures is the way to go.  Not only does it reduce the amount of carcinogens but cooking meat at high temperatures can cause meat to become touch but cooking it long and slow allows collagen to melt giving you tender meat.  Marinating meat  in beer and wine also reduces carcinogens – it’s the antioxidants in them.  You have to allow the meat to marinate for about 2 hours  for the marinade to work its magic.  And in mean time you are imparting lovely flavours to your meat.  Adding herbs will add to flavor and some herbs help to reduce carcinogens too, so you might like to add them on their own or with a marinade.

Rosemary, garlic, onion, sage, are excellent herbs to use on your meat and prevent carcinogens from forming at the same time.  When you use your herbs remember to crush them to allow the acids to be released to the meats.  One study found that a rosemary rub prevented up to 100% of carcinogens from forming.  According to this study from the university of Kansas rubbing rosemary on steak prevented the formation even when cooked at high temperatures.   They did use rosemary extract  rather than rosemary in the natural state on their steaks but crushing rosemary would release the acids responsible for the protective effect.  The extract that was most effective was extracted with the lowest levels of ethanol – so I don’t think crushing your rosemary would present a lesser result at all.  Rosemary contains rosmarinic and carnosic acids which prevent HCA and PHF from forming.    So if you really are committed to your steak being charbroiled then maybe you want to get some fresh rosemary and crush it over your steaks.  Rosemary has lots of other medicinal uses too besides providing a delicious flavor.

Garlic has lots of health benefits and one of them is the compound allicin, also present in onions. When you chop garlic and allow it to stand for 10 minutes hydrogen sulfide forms and creates allicin – so don’t forget that after you’ve crushed it all up let it sit a while. You can use this directly on meat, or in marinades.  Onion is from the alum family and provides similar benefits.  Again, allow your onion to sit for 10 minutes after you’ve chopped them  before you cook them.

Olive oils have high levels of polyphenols – once more it’s the antioxidants that do the trick.   Use olive oils in marinades too or rub your meat with olive oil and crushed sage, garlic or rosemary.

Using vitamin E works too apparently. One hundred and twenty milligrams of vitamin added to your three and half ounce meat burger works wonders to preventing the formation of the carcinogens.  You could open up a vitamin E capsule and mix it in.  I don’t know that I would bother doing this, but, just thought you might like to know that it works!

And wouldn’t you know it – drinking green tea helps prevent the effects of the carcinogens from effecting you. Green tea is cropping up everywhere for its health benefits.  The polyphenols in green tea help the body to excrete  the carcinogens.   If this is true for green tea, its very likely true for all polyphenols.  There are other foods that are high in polyphenols that you could include along with your meat meal.  Grapes, or a glass of good red wine and you could have a luscious berry smoothie for dessert.

Here’s an idea for you:  Cherrie burgers. This is a novel way to do burgers!  I love tart cherries and am excited to learn that tart cherries reduced the amount of HCAs significantly in pan fried beef.   Using lean meat is the best meat to use. When fat is burned to the extent that smoke rises PAHs are formed and drop from the smoke to the meat. On this note, if you are in the market for a barbeque you might want to consider gas over charcoal because gas creates less smoke, and smoke from charcoal has its own carcinogens. But back to the cherry burgers.   Cherries added to the burgers keep them moist so that you can use lean meat without the risk of dryness, but that’s not their cancer protective property.  The cherries are high in antioxidants and their antioxidant capacity that is responsible for protecting against the formation of HCAs.  I am definitely going to put this on my next BBQ menu.  Add 1 cup of finely chopped cherries to one pound of meat.  I just gotta try it.


Effect of oil marinades with garlic, onion, and lemon juice on the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in fried beef patties.J Agric Food Chem. 2007 Dec 12;55(25):10240-7. Epub 2007 Nov 8.

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