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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Barbeque Carcinogens

By May 5, 2013

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One of the best parts of summer, in my opinion, is barbeque. See that marshmallow? It's perfect. Brown all the way around, gooey all the way to the center. You know it will melt in your mouth. I didn't take the photo. That's because my marshmallows inevitably burst into flame and end as cinders with cold, white centers. I imagine either type of toasted marshmallow contributes to your cancer risk. So does anything charred, like seared steak or hamburgers from the grill or even burnt toast.
Toasted Marshmallow (Digiology, morguefile.com)

The carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) is mainly benzo[a]pyrene (structure is shown), though other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are present and can cause cancer, too. PAHs are in smoke from incomplete combustion, so if you can taste smoke on your food, expect it contains those chemicals. Most of the PAHs are associated with smoke or char, so you can scrape them off of your food and reduce your risk from them (though that kind of defeats the point of a toasted marshmallow). HCAs, on the other hand, are produced by a chemical reaction between meat and high or prolonged heat. You'll find these chemicals in fried meat as well as barbeque. You can't cut or scrape away this class of carcinogens, but you can limit the amount that is produced by cooking your meat just until it's done, not blackening it into oblivion.

Just how dangerous are these chemicals? The truth is, it's very hard to quantify the risk. There is no established 'this amount will cause cancer' limit because the genetic damage that leads to cancer is complex and affected by many other factors. For example, if you drink alcohol with your char, you further increase your risk, since alcohol, though it doesn't cause cancer, acts as a promoter. This means it increases the likelihood a carcinogen will be able to induce cancer. Similarly, other foods may lessen your risk. What is known is PAH's and HCA's definitively cause cancer in humans, but they are also a part of everyday life, so your body has mechanisms for detoxifying them. What you want to do is try to limit your exposure. I guess that means you should take the time to toast the perfect marshmallow rather than go for the quick sugary fireball, but that's just so hard...

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January 12, 2011 at 8:21 am
(1) Allison says:

How likely is it that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can cause cancer simply by inhalation? Has there ever been a study on this effect?

May 15, 2011 at 9:43 pm
(2) Valery says:

Hi, great article and very informative for me. I bbq regularly and often I tend to burn the meat a little too much. I will definitely refine my bbq cooking skills after reading your article. Thanks

May 16, 2011 at 10:11 pm
(3) Stacy Beth Hoyt says:

Does burnt pizza also contain carcinogens?

May 20, 2011 at 5:12 am
(4) Chris says:

Here in South Africa, the BBQ, or braai as we call it, is such a part of everyone’s lives, that to go without it would be unthinkable. I started getting worried about the carcinogens, so went looking for advice. Seems I was overly worried about it. Time to pack away the water grill and get the charcoal and wood out again. Thanks for the correct advice.

January 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm
(5) weight loss says:

Great write-up, I�m regular visitor of one�s web site, maintain up the nice operate, and It is going to be a regular visitor for a long time.

February 28, 2012 at 1:49 pm
(6) Jed Red says:

science 30 ftw

May 2, 2012 at 11:23 pm
(7) Famous Jorge says:

Man has been cooking on fire ever since he figured our how to start one. So I am willing to take the risk.

January 19, 2013 at 11:58 pm
(8) Ben says:

Cooking over fire AND getting cancer. I’ll probably skip it.

May 17, 2013 at 10:13 am
(9) flash says:

alcohol is a class one carcinogen the same class as cigarettes and a lot worse than meat on a bbq

August 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm
(10) JollyD says:

The World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that there was sufficient evidence that BaP is carcinogenic (causes cancer) in experimental animals and that BaP is probably carcinogenic in humans

(http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol32/volume32.pdf) (44).

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) that is a byproduct of incomplete combustion or burning of organic (carbon-containing) items, e.g., cigarettes, gasoline, and wood (1). Pure BaP crystals are pale yellow and needlelike with a faint odor (1). BaP is commonly found with other PAHs in cigarette smoke, in grilled and broiled foods, and as a by-product of many industrial processes (1). BaP is also found in ambient (outdoor) air, indoor air, and in some water sources (1)

Carcinogenicity Weight-of-Evidence Classification:

BaP is classified as having a mutagenic mode of action (MOA) for inducing tumors, and is thought to require metabolic activation to become carcinogenic (2). BaP is classified by the U.S. EPA as B2: a probable human carcinogen (1); based on numerous adult studies in several animal species (primates, rats, mice) that demonstrate BaP can increase the incidence of tumors (1). BaP is often used as a positive control in tumor formation experiments and in genotoxic assays (1) (http://www.epa.gov/iris/subst/0136.htm, II.A.1) (43); last agency verification date 12/4/91.

August 10, 2013 at 5:33 pm
(11) cello55 says:

So if I understand the logic and were to ask is jumping out a window bad for my health I could surmise that it’s really hard to say depending on which floor you jumping from as well a relative humidity and whether or not you accidentally land on something that breaks your fall.
So go a head and jump but not too often and lower the better.


October 15, 2013 at 11:30 am
(12) KoolThink says:

cello55 analogy is way overstating. A better analogy would be, “Is walking up and down stairs bad for your health?” Walking stairs (eating BBQ) increases your risk of injury or death compared to walking on level ground (never eating browned foods). The more you walk stairs, the more likely you will be injured. But many people walk stairs regularly and are never injured. If you choose to walk stairs, you can reduce the risk of injury by not doing so while intoxicated (eating BBQ with alcohol), using the handrail (not charring food), installing anti-slip surfaces (limiting food contact with smoke), etc. However, if you wish to limit your risk, you should live on the first floor.

November 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm
(13) harleyrider1978 says:

“Barbecues poison the air with toxins and could cause cancer, research suggests.
A study by the French environmental campaigning group Robin des Bois found that a typical two-hour barbecue can release the same level of dioxins as up to 220,000 cigarettes.

Dioxins are a group of chemicals known to increase the likelihood of cancer.

The figures were based on grilling four large steaks, four turkey cuts and eight large sausages.”

February 19, 2014 at 8:19 am
(14) Pam Elworthy says:

Does using wood rather than charcoal, lessen or increase the risks involved?

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