Cancer Diary: High Heat/Charred Meat, a Surreptitious Potential (Likely?) Cause of Some Kinds of Cancer

We love grilling. Carl had quite a reputation for grilling hamburgers, hot dogs, salmon, and more, a tradition carried on by his children (son Shawn in the picture) and grandchildren (granddaughter Neela in the picture). Friends, family, and neighbors always loved coming by for Carl's BBQs. 

Then, Carl fell and was diagnosed with stage 4 Cancer of Unknown Primary, which is an aggressive cancer, leaving little time to cope with rapid changes, let alone grilling or any kind of final fun. His oncologist thought that the primary probably was in the GI tract. Carl had skipped his colonoscopy (no one should ever do that). He was treated with a generic mix of chemicals as well as a mixture for colorectal cancer. It was too late!

What we never realized during all those years of grilling was the potential connection between grilling and cancer. Had we known that, maybe Carl would have grilled less or differently. Perhaps he would have been more diligent about getting his colonoscopy. By the time, anyone (his oncologist) focused on what was likely the cause of his illness and death, it was too late.

Hopefully, some grillers -- and consumers of grilled meat -- reading this column will take some steps to protect themselves while there still is time. It does not mean giving up a passion, just thinking about how you do it. Certainly, fixing the one risk that tipped the scale, given all the risks for cancer that exist, is nigh unto impossible, and grilling hamburgers probably did not kill Carl. There are host of other contenders for that, but, as they say, "every little thing..."

Here is the deal; please share the information.

The claim: 
When meat is charred, heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, develop as the creatine, sugars, and amino acids in meat react to a grill's high temperatures. Some studies have linked HCAs with an increased risk of colorectalpancreaticbreast, and prostate cancers. The strongest link has been in the animal population.

The cautionary approach to the claim:

The National Cancer Institute suggests that the claim comes from overgeneralization, that clear evidence does exist for animals, but the human question is more difficult to answer. In an informative article, they provide some background, along with suggestions for avoiding harm that can be caused by HCAs, and a long reference list of related studies.

Suggestions for reducing risk:

  • Add antioxidant-rich spice extracts, like rosemary, to beef patties before grilling; not only can rosemary slash the production of HCAs up to 90 percent but also it benefits the brain and digestion.
  •  Find ways to reduce the amount or effect of grill time:
    • Microwave the burgers, then "top them off" with grilling
    • Grill your burgers to rare or medium, not to well done
    • Remove the charred portions after grilling (could be a willpower issue if you love the char)
    • Flip the burgers frequently; that actually reduces the amount of time that the burger is in direct contact with the heat while still cooking the meat thoroughly
  • Don't use the meat drippings from the grilling as a gravy: that is another source of HCAs.

The bottom line:

 Turn down the heat!
Don't eat burnt meat!


Blog editor's note: As a memorial to Carl, and simply because it is truly needed, MSI is now hosting a web page, Carl's Cancer Compendium, as a one-stop starting point for all things cancer, to make it easier for those with cancer to find answers to questions that can otherwise take hours to track down on the Internet and/or from professionals. The web page is in its infancy but expected to expand into robustness. To that end, it is expanded and updated weekly. As part of this effort, each week, on Monday, this blog will carry an informative, cancer-related story -- and be open to guest posts: Cancer Diary. 


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