Does Grilled Meat Cause Cancer?

Here's what science has to say about the risk

Is your July 4 cookout a cancer risk?
Is your July 4 cookout a cancer risk?
Pam Menegakis/Unsplash
By Kayla Kibbe / June 25, 2019 10:34 am

Peak grilling season is upon us, which means as with most enjoyable things it’s time to take a step back and ask, “Is this slowly killing me?”

The answer again, as with most things is a resounding maybe. While a number of studies have appeared in recent decades linking consumption of charred, smoked and well-done meat to increased cancer risk, the evidence has been inconsistent. With the nation’s biggest grilling holiday on the horizon, Time conducted a brief survey of the literature in an attempt to get to the bottom of the “grilled-meat-causes-cancer” narrative.

The research seems to point to a combination of chemicals called HCAs (Heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) as the biggest contributing factors that may be linking grilled meat to cancer. Back in 2010, researchers at Vanderbilt University concluded that the majority of studies analyzing the relationship between meat and cancer “have shown that high intake of well-done meat and high exposure to meat carcinogens, particularly HCAs, may increase the risk of human cancer.”

Meanwhile, PAHs form “when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over a heated surface or open fire drip onto the surface or fire, causing flames and smoke,” according to a fact sheet published by the National Cancer Institute. “The smoke contains PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat.” The byproducts of metabolizing these chemicals can cause DNA damage that may increase cancer risk, Time reported, citing the research of Robert Turesky, an expert in cancer causation at the University of Minnesota.

However, Turesky also noted that this effect is largely dependent on individual factors and genetic makeup. “The risk of developing cancer for individuals who eat well-done meat may vary considerably,” he told Time.

Moreover, as Time noted, the real-world evidence behind the grilled meat/cancer link remains inconsistent. While some studies have linked the two, others have not found a significant association.

As usual, it comes down to moderation. “Clearly, the risk [of eating charred meat] is far lower than for someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day or heavily imbibes alcohol,” said Turesky. “But many people who are meat-eaters consume low levels of these potentially carcinogenic compounds daily, and the exposure may add up over time.”

So should you maybe consider cutting back on your daily steak? Probably. But you don’t have to call off your 4th of July cookout just yet.

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