Just when you thought is was safe to enjoy life once more, some killjoy just has to come up with another fear-mongering piece of pseudo-science to rock the boat. The latest from the Cancer Lunatic Fringe is that supposedly, there have been ‘studies’ that have proven that eating barbecued meat increases your risk of cancer. Ignoring the obvious fact that if this were really true, then 95% of the worlds population would be dead by now, we can examine this objectively. Even a cursory examination of the actual evidence should answer the question: Does Barbecuing Food really Cause Cancer?
Initially, we can conceded to the fact that there are potential carcinogens in everything we eat, drink, breath, or come in contact with, including each other. They exist in nature and they are everywhere. Do they pose a health threat? Under normal circumstances, the increases risk from these are so small as to be negligible. Potential carcinogens are in tomatoes, potatoes, meat, water, vegetables, the soil and even in the air we breathe. You are at a much greater cancer risk from man-made carcinogens that we introduce into the environment on a daily basis, such as car exhaust, industrial pollution, agricultural pollution, insecticides, processed food additives, smoking, etc….These are significant dangers, that have been proven by decades of actual case histories and exhaustive research. But for some reason, except for smoking, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of panic over these issues.
So, now we are to the actual issue. Are there potential carcinogens in barbecued meat, and are there more than in meat cooked by other methods? As we said, even raw meat has some potential carcinogens in it. Cattle are fed steroids, growth hormones, and treated with massive amounts of antibiotics, all of which can contain potential carcinogens. As the meat is processed, it is shot full of dyes, potassium nitrate (to hold it’s red color), various aldehydes and all kinds of other chemicals so that it will keep on a shelf for long periods of time, and retain it’s artificial bright red color from the dyes, all of which can cause cancer to a much greater degree than the meat itself. The method of cooking would have little effect on any of these.
According to several websites, a ‘study’ by the University of Minnesota Medical School has confirmed that cooking meat over high temperatures (without mentioning exactly what the temperature levels were) creates Heterocylic Amines, which are ‘known’ carcinogens. First-off, Heterocylic Amines are present in many things, including vitamins, and they are not ‘known’ carcinogens, but merely ‘suspected’, based on very thin evidence. Heterocyclic Amines are present in all cooked meats to a more or lesser degree. As far as temperature, it doesn’t matter what type of cooking you do. 350°F is 350°F, whether it is on a grill, oven, frying pan, over gas, charcoal, or dried cow chips. The style of cooking would be irrelevant. After a difficult internet search, I finally found the actual ‘study’ at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16172241?dopt=abstract . The first thing you will notice is that it is not even a real scientific study. It was simply a poll taken of 867 people. They watched them for 9 years and recorded how many got cancer. This is not even good statistical information because it is full of uncontrolled variables. There is nothing that shows that the people that got cancer, got it specifically from eating well-done meat. Further examination shows that it is not even a Peer-Reviewed Paper, but was simply an oral report, based on flimsy (almost transparent) evidence. Heterocylic Amines are also suspected neurotoxins, but the study failed to address any concerns that barbecue could contribute to Alzhiemer’s or other forms of Demitia, Parkinson’s Disease, ADD or any other neurological disorders. The Director of the study, Dr. Kirsten Anderson is not even a Medical Doctor, but an Associate Professor at the University, specializing in teaching Oncology. With all due respect to her education, she has never had a medical license, or any experience with the actual treatment of cancer, or any actual lab research experience. The only thing that this report means is that further study may be desirable.
Another thing that was not considered is the fact that marinades such as olive oil and garlic reduce Heterocyclic Amines by as much as 90%. Who barbecues without some sort of marinade? The report seemed to key on ‘charred’ meat. Charred meat is ruined meat, unless you are purposely trying to created a ‘blackened’ dish. You should never allow meat to char while barbecuing, or by any other cooking method. Well-Done is not charred, so this should be a self-correcting issue.
So basically, someone ran across a reference to this ‘report’ and decided to go crazy with it. The AMA (American Medical Association) doesn’t support this viewpoint. In fact, they are so concerned about it that they host, and attend annual barbecues at various Medical Schools to recruit first-year medical students. And the CDC has no studies that indicate that barbecue increases your risk of cancer more than any other cooking method. In fact, no professional organization that has anything to do with the actual practice of medicine has endorsed the view that barbecue can be cancerous.
That covers Heterocyclic Amines. The other suspected ‘culprit’ in barbecue is Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are everywhere, and there is no way to completely avoid exposure. They are in anything that is burned, cigarettes, pipes, cigars, burning wood, burning oil and gas, industrial by-products car exhaust, and to a very small extent, charcoal and charred meat. According the to CDC, “The level of PAHs in the typical U.S. diet is less than 2 parts of total PAHs per billion parts of food
(ppb), or less than 2 micrograms per kilogram of food…” Is this enough to increase your odds of getting cancer? Well, if we read the CDC report further, we find that “Studies in animals have also shown that PAHs can cause harmful effects on skin, body fluids, and the body’s system for fighting disease after both short- and long-term exposure. These effects have not been reported in people”. There you have, right from the horse’s mouth. The absolute, unquestioned authority and experts on human diseases, the CDC, says flat out that the small amount of PAHs in cooked food do not pose a significant health risk to humans under normal circumstances. But you should probably keep your pet mice away from the burgers…..The entire report can be found on the CDCs website at http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp69.pdf.
After all this investigation, I feel confident in saying that it is perfectly safe for you to enjoy barbecue as much as you want, without fear of cancer from this source. If it makes you nervous, just use marinades, and don’t kill the meat by charring it. As I said, common-sense would dictate that if barbecuing caused cancer, the human race would not have progressed much beyond the Neanderthal stage. So, fire up the grill, grab some steaks, chickens and burgers, and enjoy…..