Clearing the air on cancer risks of smoked or grilled meats

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 27, 2022

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Have you been eyeing those delicious grilled hot dogs, smoked briskets, and slow-cooked ribs with suspicion lately?

I’m not surprised. The fact that smoked meat has been conventionally associated with cancer by your next-door “google taught” doctors, and over more than a million cancer deaths annually, a little concern is obvious.

Spice that up with a pinch of exaggeration, and all you see and smell afterward in your smoker is aromatic cancer developing a nice and crisp bark.

But the question is, is grilling and smoking really associated with increased cancer risk?

Clearing The Air On Cancer Risks Of Smoked Or Grilled Meats

The straight answer is that there’s no exact answer. Yes, grilling contributes to developing cancer in certain ways (explained below). Still, to say that grilling alone is responsible for it, that’s an argument highly disputed in the scientific community.

While some people religiously attribute grilling as the root of all evil, others vehemently disagree with the notion, putting forward many other contributing factors, while preaching a balanced diet instead.

In this article, I’m going to analyze the question from both sides, discuss the factors contributing to cancer, provide prevention advice based on medical research, and also provide a conclusive opinion in the end.

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So without further wait, let’s jump in!

Does grilling or smoking food cause cancer?

So, are these popular cooking methods the sole culprits to blame for diseases like cancer?

That has remained one of the biggest debates after “the chicken and the egg”… at least in the world of meat savvies!

In fact, your chances of catching bowel cancer are directly associated with how much meat you consume and whether it’s processed or not.

How? Let’s break it down for you in a more elaborate way! Beware, 10th-grade nerd science incoming. ;)

How processed meat causes cancer

Processed meat is treated with chemicals like nitrates and nitrites (also used in cold smoking) to keep them fresh for a longer duration of time.

When these nitrates and nitrites enter our body, they are converted to nitrosamides.

Nitrosamides are called direct-acting agents that cause adduction (DNA adduct is any DNA molecule bonded to a cancer-causing compound).

These DNA adducts are known to cause different spinal cord and brain-related diseases, such as brain tumors.

Besides, these N-nitroso compounds are also responsible for developing cancer in different body organs, including the liver, kidney, lung, bladder, esophagus, and even nasal sinuses.

The liver is the most obvious target, though.

Research shows that consuming about 50 grams of processed meat a day increases your chances of developing cancer by 18%, whether smoked/grilled or not.

Guess what? So If we had to strictly adhere to this logic, everyone’s already in danger.

How red meat causes cancer

You must have heard the saying, “everything in excess is poison.” This saying applies perfectly here too!

Although red meat is considered safe, consuming a large amount of it is still dangerous. It can be a significant contributor to developing cancer.

Fresh meat contains blood, and the blood carries heme. Heme is a molecule that carries oxygen in a living body. It is also known as hemoglobin and myoglobin.

When you consume meat, this heme molecule is absorbed in the intestine and broken down into Carbon monoxide and iron.

The carbon monoxide is converted to carbon dioxide, which escapes your body. The iron is scavenged by ferritin, which stores it in your muscles for consumption when required.

When you consume excessive red meat, the small intestine doesn’t absorb all the heme, and it keeps accumulating in the large intestine over time.

This excess heme, over time, damages the epithelial walls of the intestine and produces reactive oxygen species or ROS.

These ROS then induce DNA mutations and also forms Nitroso compounds, both things directly associated with gastrointestinal or stomach cancer.

Compared to red meat, fish contains much less heme and is considered safer to consume even in larger quantities.

What is the role of grilling and smoking in increasing cancer risks?

Well, before we get into too much mumbo jumbo, let me give you some good news beforehand.

The relation between smoking grilling and cancer is not as straightforward as some would have you believe.

Some researchers deliberately suggest a direct relation between smoked meat and cancer, while others have a different take on that matter.

As long as you consume a normal amount of meat or grilled meat, let’s say, the chance of cancer is as much as any cooked red meat.

However, if we still had to establish for a second that grilling is the main culprit for cancer, then my friend, your meat has to be really overcooked and charred.

Usually, the cause of cancer is associated with two chemicals known as PAHs and HCAs.

The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons PAHs are contained in the smoke released when the juices and meat fat dip into the coals or wood as you grill.

The HCAs, though, are formed during the Maillard reaction, when proteins and amino acids react with sugar due to extremely high temperatures.

Now the general concept is that, since grilled meat contains both of these chemicals, you are at increased risk of cancer.

But there’s a lack of significant data on this matter as per general population studies conducted by the National Cancer Institute.

Moreover, even if some laboratory experiments somehow successfully linked the chemicals to cancer, their doses were thousands of times higher than someone would consume with normal grilled meat.

As for smoked meat, it is cooked low and slow without direct exposure to fire. Thus, the amount of PAHs and HCAs found in smoked meat is negligible.

This means when eating grilled or smoked meats, you are putting yourself at as much risk as eating any red meat or, let’s say, any food.

Just make sure the meat is not charred, though!

Why? Because, first, it gives the meat an awful taste, and second, it indicates excessive amounts of PAHs and HCAs accumulation, both equally undesirable!

Are there any ways to decrease the risk of cancer when grilling?

Yes! In fact, healthy grilling has been quite a popular thing after the grill-cooked meat and human cancer were found to have some relation.

Following are some healthy tips you can follow to decrease the risk of cancer:

What Are Some Foods That Should Be Cooked Steaming Or Sautéing?

The 2-zone grilling method

OK! This might sound ridiculous if you are orthodox, but hear me out!

The 2-zone grilling method includes grilling meat at a temperature lower than what would trigger HCA formation and then ramping it up super high once the meat is done to give it some texture and color.

Although unconventional, the practice has been getting quite popular among backyard smokers.

Besides, it’s safe, and you are not compromising on anything.

Keep the temperature consistent

When cooking meat over a grill, you would like to keep the temperature at the minimum safe (250-300F for beef) value. Not higher, not lower.

Cooking the meat at a lower temperature than recommended will prolong the cooking time of the meat.

At the same time, too high a temperature (350+ for beef) could char the meat while also producing carcinogens like PAHs and HCAs.

Keeping the temperature at the minimum possible will ensure that the meat is evenly cooked and there is no char whatsoever. Plus, there is no HCA formation.

Never forget to marinate the meat

Did you know that marinating meat does more than just add flavor to the meat?

Yes! Studies conducted by the National Cancer Institute suggest that marination meat for 30 minutes before grilling can significantly reduce the formation of HCAs during cooking.

According to the research, marinades that contain ingredients like wine, beer, herbs, citrus, etc., contain antioxidants that fight HCAs and prevent their formation.

Just so you know, after 30 minutes to 2 hours of marinating meat in citrus, the HCAs production is reduced by 88%.

The reduction is 72% and 57% for rosemary and vinegar, respectively.

Choose the right cut

The leaner the cut, the better.

As the production and exposure of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines are directly related to the duration and temperature the meat is cooked, decreased fat will ensure that the meat is safe both ways.

If you pick up hot dogs or sausages, always pick those containing the least additives to decrease cancer risk.

Also, try buying fresh instead of processed meats. Fresh meat has much fewer health risks.

If you buy chicken or turkey, make sure that they are hormone and antibiotic-free with minimum to no nitrate content.

The same holds for fish. Fresh caught fish right off the lake or aquarium is your best bet.

Try smoking halibut, it’s a naturally healthy fish!

Trim the meat perfectly

Have you been grilling meat with those visible fat caps on its surface? Well, you need to be careful!

As I have said previously, those dippings will mess up the meat big time.

It will block the smoky goodness entering the meat that arises from the coals and the woods, and boost PAH production due to dipping.

Also, when you think the meat is perfectly cooked, you would like to cut off all the charred parts to reduce the danger. It’s that black stuff that contains all the poisonous compounds.

Keep the pieces small

The smaller the meat cuts, the less the muscle fiber, and the faster the cooking process. That being said, always cut the meat into smaller pieces.

As the meat will cook quickly, it will be exposed for relatively less time to the fire. The result? Fewer carcinogens, more taste, and more tenderness!

Microwave it

Ah! The thing that I was almost afraid to mention…

But hey! Before you accuse me of treason and send me to exile from the realm of grilled meat lovers, hear me out at least once!

Microwaving before grilling almost cuts down half the time you’ll cook the meat on the grill.

As well as, there’s a 90% danger of carcinogen formation. And all that while you still get that fantastic signature grill flavor.

The best of both worlds! Isn’t it? I didn’t know the American Institute of Cancer Research could come up with such great hacks.

Dr. Crockett and Dr. Crocker discuss more ways to lower the amount of carcinogenic compounds when grilling or smoking meats, and lower the cancer risk in this video:

What is the cancer-safe temperature for grilled meat?

We have already established that it’s not the grilling that is the root of the problem, but over-grilling, right?

Thus, grill and food temperature monitoring become crucial to ensure you don’t overcook your meat and bring the best flavor out of it.

Just to give you an idea, the ideal “cancer-free” internal temperature for different grilled dishes is given as under:

Beef

  • Grilled beef Steak: 145 degrees F
  • Grilled beef Kabob: 165 degrees F
  • Grilled hamburger: 145 degrees F
  • Grilled Sirloin tip: 145 degrees F
  • Grilled back Ribs: 160 degrees F
  • Grilled veal Steak: 145 degrees F
  • Grilled boneless veal chops: 145 degrees F

Pork

  • Grilled pork chops: 145 degrees F
  • Grilled pork tenderloin: 145 degrees F
  • Grilled baby back rib: 145 degrees F
  • Grilled pork kabobs: 175 degrees F
  • Grilled bacon: 160 degrees F

Poultry

  • Grilled chicken breast: 165 degrees F
  • Grilled whole turkey: 180 degrees F in thighs, 170 degrees F in the breast
  • Grilled game meats: 145-160 degrees F

Seafood

  • Grilled fish internal temperature: 140 degrees F
  • Grilled lobster internal temperature: 140 degrees F
  • Grilled shrimp internal temperature: 120 degrees F

Learn more about safer ways of smoking food to stay healthy here

Does steaming or sautéing food minimize cancer risks?

Steaming and sautéing foods is a great way to ensure that you don’t get as many harmful compounds into your body.

When you steam or saute food, you are cooking it without using high amounts of heat. As a result, you are less likely to produce harmful compounds.

Steaming and sauté cooking is good for vegetables, poultry, seafood, tofu, and grains.

Conclusion

Grilling and smoking meat have been among the most revered and standard methods of preparing different meats. Not to mention the most ancient ones.

However, as the risk of bowel and other types of cancer is increasing with every passing day, it’s common to get a bit worried when your favorite dishes are associated with the deadly disease.

Although the scientific community is yet to further their research on the topic to establish a conclusive opinion on the matter, excessive consumption of smoked meat is not anyone would recommend.

Another thing that plays an important role here is your grilling and smoking skills.

Since PAHs and HCAs are closely associated with cancer, you definitely don’t want to overcook or char your meat.

We can all agree veggies are healthy! Find the 7 best recipes for smoking vegetables here

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.