Summer grilling is a way of life in America, with charcoal and propane often selling out in the days before holiday weekends. But, as a plethora of peer-reviewed articles warn us, there is a risk to eating grilled or smoked meat due to the formation of compounds that can cause cancer. As WebMD states, “Studies have linked the consumption of grilled meat to an increased risk for colon, prostate, pancreatic, stomach, and breast cancers, especially if the meat is cooked to well done.”
So should you worry or stop participating in this American tradition?
The answer: While we’d love to give this a Hard No!, the real answer is in Moderation.
To explain: Millions of people worldwide grill meat because of the taste. That taste, however, is caused by the Maillard reaction that occurs when free amino acids and reducing sugars are heated during cooking, providing the browned appearance and tasty flavors of cooked foods. Unfortunately, it also produces carcinogens, and the more well done or charred the meat, the greater the exposure.
But, what’s the alternative? Grilling or smoking not only imparts quality characteristics to our food, it is essential for food safety. It’s also worthwhile to point out that other commonly consumed foods and drinks undergo Maillard reactions but have been associated with reduced cancer risk. Specifically, coffee contains hundreds of carcinogens, but there is evidence that coffee reduces skin, mouth, and throat cancers according to a paper by the American Cancer Society.
So, what’s the answer? Moderation. As with anything, moderation is key. A well-balanced diet will minimize risk without depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. Additionally, many people gain positive quality of life aspects from grilling and smoking – being outside soaking up the sun (with sunscreen applied, of course!), getting much-needed Vitamin D for our immune systems, often enjoying the camaraderie of friends or family – all while preparing a great meal. So, our advice: Maintain a healthy, varied diet, and enjoy your time around the grill and the flavors that are produced.