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Doctor explains when meat becomes dangerous: ‘That’s when it becomes a problem’

“It’s more of a message about one’s lifestyle.”

"It’s more of a message about one’s lifestyle.”

Photo Credit: iStock

A warning from a UCLA scientist will make you think twice about cooking meat on the grill, as the popular practice was found to have potentially devastating health ramifications.

What happened?

Catherine Carpenter, Ph.D., a professor of clinical nutrition and a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, explained to UCLAHealth.org that eating meat cooked over high temperatures can increase the risk of cancer. 

When meat is grilled long enough that it charcoals, it means the fat has burned to a point where it produces carcinogenic chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). If exposed to these chemicals frequently over an extended period, DNA can be damaged and develop into tumors over time.

“It’s not so much a one-time experience, such as an occasion where you kept your meat on the grill too long and it turned black. It’s more of a message about one’s lifestyle,” Carpenter said. “You’ve been cooking that way for 30 years; every weekend, there’s a barbecue, you grill the meat at high temperatures, and all of this blackening occurs. That’s when it becomes a problem in terms of cancer risk.”

Why is this concerning?

Grilling meat is a staple in the United States, especially when barbecue season comes around during the summer. 

A study published by the scientific journal Nutrients found that about 12% of Americans, generally men and people aged 50 to 65, eat half of the country’s burgers, steaks, and other beef products.

Carpenter warned that long-term exposure to HCAs and PAHs can increase the risk of prostate, colon, and pancreatic cancers. It was noted that PAHs are “aerosols produced from cooking smoke that are also deposited on the meat,” so ingesting the beef also leads to smoke inhalation.

In addition to the increased cancer risk, a recent study conducted by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who eat just two servings of red meat a week could be at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

And the beef industry is one of the leading causes of gases that cause the planet’s average temperatures to rise, leading to many problems through climate change, due to a much higher number of cows than would exist naturally in the wild.

What can you do about it?

Of course, the deliciousness of grilled meat isn’t something that many people would give up easily. However, while cutting down on meat consumption could be good for your health and the environment at large, there are ways to eat the same amount of meat while mitigating potential health risks.

Carpenter suggested relying on cooking with indirect heat, and when direct heat is necessary, the meat should be turned frequently to reduce exposure to carcinogens. If the meat does charcoal, those parts should be trimmed off before serving and consuming.

Also, fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that counteract the effects of the cancer-causing chemicals, so serving them with meat would reduce cancer risk. Marinating meat in a citrus-based marinade before grilling would also allow the meat to absorb the citrus and the antioxidants to offset the chemical effects of the carcinogens.

“I’m not saying don’t barbecue the meat, but cook it in a way that’s better for you in terms of cancer risk,” Carpenter said.

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