Prevent Cancer: Limit High-Heat Cooking

Barbecuing is a cherished American pastime for many people, but cooking high-protein foods over high heat can increase your risk for cancer.

Many people enjoy barbecuing on warm summer nights or cooking over an open flame at a campsite. But it’s a good thing we don’t cook like that all the time. That’s because cooking high-protein foods such as beef, pork, fish, and poultry at high temperatures over coals or flames creates chemicals that are believed to increase cancer risk. The same is true of pan ­frying such foods on the stove, or any high-heat cooking method. These chemicals are called:

  • Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Laboratory studies have shown that high levels of HCAs and PAHs can cause many different types of cancer in rodents.

  • This is thought to be because HCAs and PAHs can cause DNA to change in ways that may increase cancer risk.
  • It’s true that in these laboratory studies the animals were given levels of HCAs and PAHs that were thousands of times higher than what people consume.
  • However, observational studies of people have found that eating fried or barbecued meat and other charred foods is associated with an increased risk of:
    • Colorectal cancer
    • Pancreatic cancer
    • Prostate cancer

More research is being done on the relationship between high-heat cooking and cancer. But, as with past studies, it is hard to tease out if the increased risk is due to the high heat or to the fact that people who eat a lot of barbecued meat tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. They could also have other dietary habits that increase cancer risk or have higher exposures to PAHs from other sources, such as cigarette smoke.

Meanwhile, we advise that you limit your intake of meat, fish, and poultry that have been cooked at high temperatures. Also, when you do enjoy that summer barbecue, you might want to precook the meat in the microwave for a few minutes before putting it on the grill. You can also turn the food often while it’s cooking to prevent charring. Both steps will help to reduce levels of HCAs and PAHs in the food.