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Clearing the Air on Cancer Risks of Smoked or Grilled Meats

July 03, 2018

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Few things say summer like a juicy steak or burger hot off the grill. But many wonder if grilled or smoked meats automatically come with a side serving of increased cancer risk.  We asked Moffitt epidemiologist Dr. Stephanie Schmit to weigh in.

“Among other factors such as a family history of colon cancer and low physical activity, eating foods grilled or smoked at high temperatures can also increase the risk of developing colon cancer,” says Dr. Schmit. She explains that grilling and smoking processes that give meats that charred appearance and smoky flavor generate some potentially cancer-causing compounds in the food.  Charred, blackened areas of the meat – particularly well-done cuts - contain heterocyclic amines. And smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that can cling to the surface of the meat.

Both of these compounds found in well-done meats are likely carcinogenic, says Dr. Schmit. In general, red meat consumption is “probably carcinogenic” to humans, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which looked at population-level studies.

Dr. Schmit adds that you might want to forego the lighter fluid. “When it comes to cancer risk and the use of petroleum-based lighter fluid for charcoal grilling, the evidence is more limited and less clear.  But none of it seems favorable. Lighter fluid can give off volatile organic compounds that may negatively impact health.”

Your best bets for safer summer grilling?

  • Keep that grill surface clean and use aluminum foil to avoid smoky flare-ups
  • Choose thinner cuts of meat that will cook faster
  • Trim any fat that can drip and produce more smoke
  • Pass on the “burnt ends” - discard any charred, blackened areas
  • When it comes to red meat, don’t cook until it’s “well-done”

Or skip the meaty risks and give the fresh fruits and veggies of summer a turn!

For more information, check out this fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute.