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Barbecues and a Possible Increased Risk of Cancer?

If you’re a UK resident, you’ve probably been sadly disappointed with the number of so-called Summer days which are conducive to getting out the BBQ.  But, whilst reflecting on some happy grilling times gone by, it might be appropriate to consider some disturbing information regarding health concerns related to this outdoor craving and possibly adjusting your BBQ techniques for 2016 and beyond.  

BBQ Health risks

In addition to the many precautions which do need to be observed around a white-hot grill, I expect the great majority of us do have worries about ensuring we have fully cooked the meat and thereby reduced the risk of inflicting our guests and family with upset tummies or even food poisoning.  But overcooking might just have more serious implications.

When meat, such as beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using a high-temperature process which includes the use of an open flame (1), two key chemicals are produced, - heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  Both of these substances are known to be carcinogenic.  HCAs are formed when amino acids, sugars, and creatine react at high temperatures. Barbecued chicken and steak all have high concentrations of HCAs.  PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat.

HCAs and PAHs are capable of damaging DNA only after they are metabolised by specific enzymes in the body, in particular, CYP1A2 (Cytochrome P450) which is actually essential for drug metabolism and the breakdown of a number of toxic substances.  Several studies have shown that the levels of this enzyme are higher in some individuals than others.  Where there is a higher activity of these enzymes, there is greater ‘bioactivation’ of HCAs and PAHs and such persons may be more susceptible and at greater risk (2-4).

Other studies have shown that exposure to HCAs and PAHs can cause cancer in animals (5).  However, the doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies were very high—equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet.  Population studies have not established a definitive link between HCA and PAH exposure from cooked meats and cancer in humans.  However, researchers found that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal (6), pancreatic (7, 8), and prostate (9, 10) cancer.  Researchers in the United States are currently investigating the association between meat intake, meat cooking methods, and cancer risk. On-going studies include the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study (6, 12), the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II (13), the Multiethnic Cohort (14), and studies from Harvard University (15). Similar research in a European population is being conducted in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study (16).

In the USA there are currently no Federal guidelines which address the consumption of foods containing HCAs and PAHs.  The National Cancer Institute (USA) has produced a number of guidelines which it recommends should be followed to reduce the risks.

  • Avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface and avoiding prolonged cooking times (especially at high temperatures) can help reduce HCA and PAH formation (11).
  •  Using a microwave oven to cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures can also substantially reduce HCA formation by reducing the time that meat must be in contact with high heat to finish cooking (11).
  • Continuously turning meat over on a high heat source can substantially reduce HCA formation compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it often (11).
  • Removing charred portions of meat and refraining from using gravy made from meat drippings can also reduce HCA and PAH exposure (11).


References:
(1)      Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis 2004; 44(1):44–55.
(2)    Sinha R, Rothman N, Mark SD, et al. Lower levels of urinary 2-amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]-quinoxaline (MeIQx) in humans with higher CYP1A2 activity. Carcinogenesis 1995; 16(11):2859–2861.
(3)    Moonen H, Engels L, Kleinjans J, Kok T. The CYP1A2-164A-->C polymorphism (CYP1A2*1F) is associated with the risk for colorectal adenomas in humans. Cancer Letters 2005; 229(1):25–31.
(4)    Butler LM, Duguay Y, Millikan RC, et al. Joint effects between UDP-glucuronosyltransferase 1A7 genotype and dietary carcinogen exposure on risk of colon cancer. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention
2005; 14(7):1626–1632.
(5)    Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Nakagama H, Nagao M. Heterocyclic amines: Mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish. Cancer Science 2004; 95(4):290–299.
(6)    Cross AJ, Ferrucci LM, Risch A, et al. A large prospective study of meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: An investigation of potential mechanisms underlying this association. Cancer Research 2010; 70(6):2406–2414.
(7)    Anderson KE, Sinha R, Kulldorff M, et al. Meat intake and cooking techniques: Associations with pancreatic cancer. Mutation Research 2002; 506–507:225–231.
(8)    Stolzenberg-Solomon RZ, Cross AJ, Silverman DT, et al. Meat and meat-mutagen intake and pancreatic cancer risk in the NIH-AARP cohort. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention 2007; 16(12):2664–2675.
(9)    Cross AJ, Peters U, Kirsh VA, et al. A prospective study of meat and meat mutagens and prostate cancer risk. Cancer Research 2005; 65(24):11779–11784.
(10)    Sinha R, Park Y, Graubard BI, et al. Meat and meat-related compounds and risk of prostate cancer in a large prospective cohort study in the United States. American Journal of Epidemiology 2009; 170(9):1165–1177.
(11)    Knize MG, Felton JS. Formation and human risk of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines formed from natural precursors in meat. Nutrition Reviews 2005; 63(5):158–165.
(12)    Kabat GC, Cross AJ, Park Y, et al. Meat intake and meat preparation in relation to risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in the NIH-AARP diet and health study. International Journal of Cancer 2009; 124(10):2430–2435.
(13)    Rodriguez C, McCullough ML, Mondul AM, et al. Meat consumption among Black and White men and risk of prostate cancer in the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2006; 15(2):211–216.
(14)    Nöthlings U, Yamamoto JF, Wilkens LR, et al. Meat and heterocyclic amine intake, smoking, NAT1 and NAT2 polymorphisms, and colorectal cancer risk in the multiethnic cohort study. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2009; 18(7):2098–2106.
(15)    Wu K, Sinha R, Holmes M, et al. Meat mutagens and breast cancer in postmenopausal women—A cohort analysis. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2010; 19(5):1301–1310.
(16)    Rohrmann S, Zoller D, Hermann S, Linseisen J. Intake of heterocyclic aromatic amines from meat in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Heidelberg cohort. British Journal of Nutrition 2007; 98(6):1112–1115.


Acknowledgements:
Grateful thanks to the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, the source of the key information contained in this article.