Cancer on a bun

Grilled veggies on bbqThe Fourth of July is the most popular outdoor cooking holiday of the year, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. Yet as Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day, many are not aware that grilling some food items produces cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs, a family of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds, are produced when meats, including chicken, beef, pork, and fish, are grilled, pan-fried, or broiled.

Meat naturally contains amino acids and a protein called creatine that is found in muscle tissue. When meat is grilled, this combination of amino acids and creatine form HCAs. Creatine is found only in muscle tissue, not in plant-based foods, so vegetarian foods do not produce detectable levels of HCAs when they are grilled. At least 24 studies have now impli­cated HCAs in breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and cancer of the larynx, stomach, and prostate gland. In January 2005, the federal government officially added HCAs to its list of known carcinogens. Studies have shown that exposure to PhIP, one type of HCA, at levels as low as 10 to 20 nanograms per day is associated with roughly a doubling of breast cancer risk.

The Five Worst Foods to Grill
Food Item
HCAs: nanograms per 100 grams
Chicken breast, skinless, boneless, grilled, well done
14,000 nanograms/100 grams
Steak, grilled, well done
810 nanograms/100 grams
Pork, barbecued
470 nanograms/100 grams
Salmon, grilled with skin
166 nanograms/100 grams
Hamburger, grilled, well done
130 nanograms/100 grams
Veggieburger, grilled, well done
None
Corn, grilled, well done
None

Another problem comes from meat products that have preservatives, such as the nitrates and nitrites often found in hot dogs and preserved meats. These chemicals react to form nitrosamines after they are eaten. Nitrosamines are highly carcinogenic compounds and have been implicated in several forms of cancer. So skip the dogs and the salami.  Add to all this the fact that animals store up and concentrate the carcinogenic  chemicals they encounter such as pesticides, herbicides, PCBs and Dioxin in their tissue to levels much higher than in plant foods, and you have many good reasons to avoid meat altogether on July 4th (and every other day for that matter!)

Avid grillers need not throw away the barbecue: Grilling can provide healthful meals.  Reducing exposure to carcinogens is as simple as grilling a veggie burger instead of a hamburger, or a thick portabella mushroom instead of a steak. Cooks can marinade and prepare most of these veggie options just as they would with meats.

Here are five grilling ideas for this year’s Fourth of July barbecue:

  • Veggie burgers
  • Vegetarian chicken patties
  • Vegetable kabobs (sweet onions, pineapple, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini and button mushrooms—cooks should choose their favorite veggies and use their best-tasting marinade)
  • Marinated portabella mushrooms (serve on bun as a sandwich or slice and eat as fajitas)
  • Barbecue tofu or tempeh (place tofu in barbecue sauce and allow to marinate for two to three hours, grill, and serve with baked beans, corn, and a salad)

Enjoy!