The problem with barbeque and char-grilled meat

Charred meat increases the likelihood of causing various forms of cancer.

Creative Essa Malik/haris Seyal February 10, 2013
Charred meat increases the likelihood of causing various forms of cancer. DESIGN: ESSA MALIK


For those of us who’re hoping to one day have our grandchildren be introduced to us while we remain healthy and presentable, it’s time to make some changes. An abundance of research has determined that barbequed and char-grilled meat — typical of fast food, but also a hallmark characteristic of Pakistani cuisine — is associated with a significantly increased likelihood of developing various forms of cancer.

For most Pakistanis, the aroma and flavour of juicy, browned meat does not fail being a very recent memory. In addition to the ubiquitous barbeque set-ups, most big cities in the country have witnessed a surge in the popularity of char-grilled meat, particularly in the form of char-grilled burgers. As such, the work of Kristen Anderson at the University of Minnesota may have come just in time for us. Anderson, who is an expert on the ‘rapidly fatal’ pancreatic cancer, followed individuals for a nine-year period and identified over 200 cases of the former. She found that those who frequently consumed burned or charred meat were almost 60% more likely to develop the condition.

How come?

• As explained in a publication in the Harvard Health Letter, ‘Cancer risk from BBQ meat’, cooking meat in any form at high temperature causes creatine (a substance found abundantly in red meat) to form chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs.) HCAs are widely believed to be potent ‘carcinogens’, ie cancer-causing substances.

• Grilling is ‘double trouble.’ On top of the thriving HCAs, when meat is barbequed or char-grilled, an additional type of compound known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) is also found. PAHs are produced in the smoke from fire. When fat and juices from the meat being grilled drip into the burning coal, those thrilling flames cause the PAHs from the smoke to adhere to the surface of the meat.

PAHs will also be found in meat that has been smoked. According to the National Cancer Institute, other researchers have identified high consumption of meat that is ‘well-done, fried or barbequed’ as associated with increased risks of colorectal and prostate cancer, in addition to the work on pancreatic cancer by Anderson.

What can be done?

Increasing reliance on low temperature cooking methods. The Better Health Channel in Australia suggest steaming, boiling, poaching, stewing, braising, baking or stir-frying as some of the options.

No, really!

Fortunately, for the barbeque enthusiast facing denial, experts have provided some tips to minimise formation of HCAs and PAHs. Cooking on low heat and not exposing the meat to flames is primary. Other things that can be done include:

• Using smaller cuts of meat. Larger portions such as a whole steak will take longer to cook than smaller ones and also require more heat. Dietician Leslie Beck recommends swapping them for kebabs.

• Harvard Health recommends choosing leaner cuts of meat because less fat will reduce flames when grilling. Another thing that should be done is to ‘flip frequently’, which substantially lowers HCA formation by not letting any one side of the meat get too hot. Marinating meat first is recommended by many but the evidence that it helps is weak.

But you’re only the guest!

If none of the above is useful because your experiences with barbeque are being dictated, there are still some measures that can be taken. Make absolutely sure you cut away any charred portions. And if the meat is fowl, you might be saved if you can desist from consuming the skin. An article in Time Healthland reported that while roasted chicken meat was found to have only 1.9 ng/g of HCAs, the skin had over eight times more with 16.3 ng/g. So don’t be shallow, for the heterocyclic amines are only skin deep.

Or maybe you’ll just stay back home with your daada-daadi and gorge on the unfailing goodness of home-made salan!

The author is the head of Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative. Find out more at

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2013.            

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T.A | 8 years ago | Reply

It'll take years before human understand proper nutrition. Scientists bring out new claims about 'proper foods' every single day, and change their views on them just as often.

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