Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Eating grilled meat increases your chance of cancer

Sorry, it just ain’t so. I say “sorry” because there are some people who seem to want grilled meat to be unhealthy—beats me as to why (perhaps it’s the “if it tastes good it must be bad for you” syndrome?). Anyway, this myth got its start because grilling—like some other cooking techniques—produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogens in humans. What this means is that there is no evidence that they actually are carcinogens in humans, but someone thinks that if they keep looking long and hard enough they will find some evidence. As an example, a recent prospective study in 120,000 women found no relationship between breast cancer and eating red meat or the way the meat was cooked. “But but but,” the worry-warts will say, “HCAs cause cancer in rats and mice!” Yes, but we are not rats or mice (most of us, anyway) and what’s true for them is not always true for us. There is evidence, for example, that early humans adapted a digestive system to safely eat cooked food while rodents did not.  Also, just because a high dose of something, like the high doses of HCAs that the experimental rats and mice were given, causes a health problem does not mean that the very small doses we get in our food will also cause a problem.

4 responses to “Eating grilled meat increases your chance of cancer

  1. mr vancouver food blogger December 7, 2011 at 2:27 am

    This grilled meat cooking method is one of the most popular food myths that can cause Cancer to humans because of presence of carcinogens. Anyway you explained it clearly that not all that grilled foods can cause Cancer problems.

  2. danperlman December 18, 2011 at 11:20 am

    It reminds me of back when cyclamates were declared as dangerous and banned from soft drinks. Why? Because they caused cancer in rats. I was in a biology class at the time and we looked at the study – in order to cause the cancer in rats, on an ingestion to weight ratio, an average adult human would have had to drink 200 cans of diet soda per day for two years. Cancer would likely have been the least of that human’s problems.

  3. Ecology PhD January 12, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    So its obvious that you’ve given up on any kind of scientific process when making your rants. “Reasonably Anticipated” to be carcinogenic usually means that it is in a subtype of compounds that have already been shown to be carcinogenic so it could be reasonably assumed that “similar compounds” that act on the body in “similar ways” are also carcinogenic. In terms of Rats and Humans and their similarities, I will give you the following multiply sourced post: 75% of mouse genes have equivalents in humans, 90% of the mouse genome could be lined up with a region on the human genome, 99% of mouse genes turn out to have analogues in humans.


    This is why we use mice and rats as model organisms. The point you need to be making is that the concentrations of the HCA’s are so low that you end up dampening major effect. But there is still a HIGHLY POSSIBLE chance that there is some kind of effect.

    Lastly, the adaptation hypothesis makes absolutely no sense. Evolution of this type only happens when there is a high selective pressure for that attribute. The carcinogenicity of HCA’s is (most likely not) NOT a strong selective pressure and thus it probably did not contribute to evolution.

    • kitchenmyths January 12, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      When someone says something is “obvious,” it is usually a pretty good sign that they are wrong. But, just in case, I shall advise all my mouse friends not to eat grilled meat.

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