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The barbecue-and-cancer question: Is there a connection?

Do you ever have a question about nutrition that hovers around the edges of your mind for a time until it finally makes its way to the forefront, where it firmly demands to be answered?
If this sounds familiar, you are in good company. Me too.
For a long time I have been curious about the health effects of barbecuing and pellet grilling (such as with a Traeger). For years I have heard negative things about grilling, but never really peered in to the research. I honestly didn’t want to worry about the infrequent times that I eat barbecue.
Yet the question lingered. Then a friend gave us his old Traeger and another friend asked me about the health effects. So you see, I have to honestly answer the question in my mind (and perhaps yours): Does barbecuing and pellet-grilling (smoking) really promote cancer, like some people say?

The “Risks” of BBQs and Pellet Grills (and any high heat cooking)

Barbecues use high heat with an open flame for often long periods of time in order to cook food. This is what gives food (typically meat) its charred, crusty-edged characteristics. A wood pellet grill (pellet smoker) can be more versatile in its temperature range than a grill using smoke and heat to cook the food products.
Instead of direct heat from an open flame, pellet grills use an auger to push wood pellets from the hopper into a fire pot. The igniter in the fire pot heats the pellets and uses blower fans to push the smoke up to the meat to cook it.
It has been shown that when cooking meat with direct, high heat (280-330F), the amino acids on the surface of the animal meat react at high temperatures with creatinine to form compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA) or heterocyclic aromatic compounds (HAA). (Note that this is true only of animal flesh, but not ALL animal products such as eggs and dairy). Smoke specifically creates another compound called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). The longer you cook your meat at high temperatures, the more HAAs you create. It means the more well done your burger or steak, the more of these compounds you will create.
The problem with these HAAs is that they have been shown to be mutagenic and carcinogenic. These HAAs go in and cause abnormal cell growth in animals and humans, modifying DNA by inserting, deleting or breaking it apart. Studies on rodents have shown that high amounts of HAAs for prolonged periods of time cause cancer growth.
In humans the data isn’t as straightforward. You can’t exactly test humans with direct doses of HAAs the way you would a mouse. You have to look at correlation.
Epidemiological studies show there is an increased risk of cancer markers with the increased consumption of HAAs. What we do know is that there is a definite association of cancer amongst people who consume more HAAs.
Measured in the human body, HAAs are considered a “menace marker” for cancer. It doesn’t mean you have cancer or that this is a guarantee that you will get it. It just means researchers have seen a higher correlation between people who have high amounts of HAA in their system and cancer rates. These include many types of cancer in humans with increased intake of HAAs, including colon, breast, pancreatic, stomach. Lung cancer is mostly caused by HAAs (since you can also get HAA’s from smoking cigarettes too).
Perhaps your mind immediately rushes to the identical question that mine did: “How much do these HAA and PAHs really affect your health? Sure, HAAs and PAHs caused problems in the lab, but how does that translate into how much BBQ I can eat before worrying (or determining IF I should eat it at all!). How many burgers are too many?”
One of the sources I read said that if you don’t have a history of cancer in your family, then your chances are 1 in 1 billion of getting it from barbecued foods. Therefore, “it means that you’d have to eat at least half a pound of grilled foods five times a week for 20 years and there’s only 10% chance that you’ll get cancer. For smoked foods it would be 40 years and you’d only get 3% chance.” (See lakesidesmokers.com).
Other research journals confirm that no one can directly determine a dose for humans that guarantees a carcinogenic effect.
The truth is, no one can totally predict who will get cancer. You look for certain “risk factors” and “bio markers” but those are ultimately scientific best guesses, not guarantees.
What are we to do with this information? Renounce BBQ and feel guilty over every burger you have consumed? Well, don’t, because this isn’t the end of the research. When you pull back and see this in the context of overall food preparation techniques, this topic actually becomes much more fascinating and hopeful!

Mitigating the Risks

You will be happy to know that there IS a way to decrease the effect of the heterocyclic amines without giving up your BBQ! It turns out that you can protect your food remarkably well with seasonings, dry rubs, or marinades. The antioxidants in herbs, spices, fruits and olive oil offer natural protection against HAAs!
You have heard of them before: carotenoids in tomatoes, polyphenols in olive oil, anthocyanins in cherries etc. These actually take care of a majority of the free radicals (the HAAs) in your barbecued meats before you eat them! Almost any fruit or herb will do it too. Some of the most studied have been garlic, onion, olive oil, rosemary, and fruits like lemon, cherry and apple.
Garlic alone has been shown to decrease the production of HAAs by 70%. One study suggested using a marinade with the specific ratio of 1 part lemon, 2 parts garlic and onion each to get the best effect out of each of these components (which, by themselves, reduce HAAs very well).
Rosemary extracts as low as 0.05% concentration have shown to reduce HAAs up to 90%. Cherry and bourbon wood pellets also showed to decrease HAAs.
It’s rather remarkable isn’t it? The harm that could be done to us by using one cooking technique can be essentially disarmed by what God has provided for us in other foods and food preparation techniques! It sort of balances itself out!
This is also a good remainder of two other things.
First, always consider research information in a greater context – real life. Lab data only truly makes useful sense when it is put to the test in real life. As we have seen here, just because an experiment has revealed one piece of information doesn’t mean that it has the same meaning when applied outside in the real world.
Second, our food choices matter but real life isn’t perfect. We must expect that we will probably consume a little bit of substances that aren’t beneficial to our health on a daily basis. We can influence a lot but we can’t control everything! So accept that degree of risk that comes with being human and use some flavorful tools to off-set the risk.
Enjoy BBQ, food and life. Guilt free!
– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and daughters.