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The question

I've heard that barbecued food is cancer causing. Should I avoid it altogether this summer?

The answer

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Yes, there is evidence to suggest that a heavy intake of barbecued meat could increase cancer risk. Compounds in cooked meat called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are to blame. Grilling, broiling and frying meat at high temperatures creates HCAs that are not present in uncooked meat. They're formed when amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and creatine (a natural compound found in muscle meats) react at high temperatures.

At least 20 different HCAs are formed during cooking meat that may up cancer risk. One in particular, called PhIP, is the most abundant HCA in our diet. While HCAs have been shown to promote cancer in animals, few studies have explored the link in humans.

A 2009 study asked 25,540 participants about types of meat consumed, cooking methods and degree of browning – factors that influence the formation of HCAs. Daily intakes of HCAs, including PhIP, were also calculated.

Compared to those with the lowest intake of PhIP, people who consumed the most had a 46% greater risk of developing precancerous polyps. As well, individuals who reported the highest – versus lowest – intake of "strongly" or "extremely" browned red meat had an increased risk of developing polyps.

Interestingly, among people in this study who consumed the most flavonoids (phytochemicals in berries, cherries, red grapes, apples, citrus fruit, broccoli, kale, onions and tea), there was no link between PhIP intake and polyp risk. Flavonoids are thought to block the formation of HCAs in meat.

That said, there is no need to give up barbecued foods this summer. Instead, do what you can to minimize the formation of HCAs in cooked meat. And be sure to eat less than 18 ounces of red meat per week.

• Keep meat portions small to cut down on grilling time. Instead of grilling a whole steak, make kebabs since they cook more quickly.

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• For meats that require longer cooking times, partially cook in the microwave, drain away the juices, and then finish on the barbecue. Microwaving meat for two minutes prior to grilling can result in a significant reduction in HCAs.

• Marinate meat for 10 minutes before grilling to reduce the formation of HCAs. Ingredients in a marinade like vinegar, citrus juice, vegetable oil, and spices may prevent carcinogen formation.

• Cook at a lower temperature. Turn the gas down or wait for the charcoal to become low-burning embers.

Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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