Does High-Temperature Cooking Increase Cancer Risk?


Certain forms of high-heat cooking actually can cause the formation of cancer-causing compounds in red meats especially, but as always, a certain set of conditions has to be met for this to take place.

“X thing you love causes cancer” is quickly entering The Boy Who Cried Wolf territory—we’ve all heard it so many times that we are becoming jaded.

The research-verified connection between high-heat cooking methods and cancer risk is a fitting example, since many smoked meat and/or bbq connoisseurs in the know don’t seem to care.

If the grim state of the science isn’t enough to put someone off of a potentially harmful practice, then compromise is the next best thing.

What exactly does this look like in the arena of high-heat cooking? 

Before we can explore alternatives to conventional grilling, smoking, and frying, it’s important for future decision-making rationale to understand the nature of this connection between cooking, food, and cancer.

How Cooking Method Affects Cancer Risk

The small sampling of studies presented below on the cancer-causing (carcinogenic) potential of high-heat cooking methods cites three mechanisms responsible for this connection:

  • Cooking foods at high temperatures and for longer periods of time creates cancer-causing compounds.
  • Heme iron (the animal-derived type of dietary iron, as opposed to non-heme iron from plants) has been correlated with increased cancer risk.
  • Diets rich in red meat are statistically lower in anti-carcinogenic foods, many of which are plant-based. 

Carcinogenic Potential of Grilled vs. Pan-Fried Meat

A study from USC’s Keck School of Medicine pulled data from the Colorectal Cancer Family Registry to search for correlations between cooked meat and cancer incidence.

The authors analyzed not just what the 3,364 colorectal cancer (CRC) patients ate, but how the meat was cooked and for how long.

The study concluded that pan-fried, oven-broiled, and grilled meats were all associated with a statistically significant increase in CRC risk.

These foods in particular were found by the data to be strongly connected to cancer incidence:

  • Pan-fried beefsteak
  • Pan-fried ham and sausage
  • Oven-broiled short ribs

Researchers cited all of the above pro-cancer factors—heme iron, formation of carcinogenic compounds under cooking, and low intake of cancer-protective foods—as the main drivers of this correlation. 

They also noted no correlation between CRC risk and processed or unprocessed meat when the effect of cooking was ignored, which is a telling insight into just how important cooking can be for disease prevention. 

Cooking Method and Cancer Risk of Carbohydrate-Rich Food

Meat isn’t the only culprit when it comes to cooking-induced carcinogen formation.

In fact, this study from Stockholm University found that heated carbohydrate-rich food was roughly a hundred times more effective at promoting pro-cancer mutations of cells than acrylamide (the plant-based carcinogen involved in this process) by itself. 

This brings us to an important point that carries over into many other nutrition-related issues: plants are not the blameless victims that we romanticize them to be.

Many plants use built-in chemical defenses to deter predators when being chewed on, and even those that don’t can still form toxic molecules when cooked because of their particular chemical makeup. 

Genetic Factors Influence Food-Related Cancer Risks

Even though the correlation between certain cooking methods/foods and cancer risk is statistically significant, it could be much stronger, which implies that many people are avidly chomping down on these high-risk foods without getting cancer.

Alas, backyard barbecues are not closely monitored research settings, and there are probably many small case-by-case discrepancies that can affect the data.

One UC Davis study, however, found a much more clearly defined explanation: natural genetic variations among humans are weakening and strengthening this connection between food and cancer.

In the study, 400 participants were separated into groups based on their intake level of two carcinogens found in cooked foods: heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

The “lab speak” gets more than a little hairy on this one, so here’s a summary of the findings in plain English:

  • Humans have a gene that allows for the creation of an enzyme that detoxifies HCA and PAH. 
  • Like differences in hair or eye color, humans can have different versions, or “allelic variations” of this gene.
  • Of the two types of the gene that were assessed among the 400 participants in the study, one type was connected with increased cancer risk, while the other was not.

In other words, researchers successfully proved that UGT1A7 gene variation can influence the pro-cancer effects of these food-based compounds.

How to Minimize Your Risk

Food is merely one of many factors that can influence cancer risk.

A truly comprehensive approach to cancer prevention would also entail exercise, stress management, sleep, and much more.

When the grill or the smoker calls to you, however, there are a few key tweaks you can make to suppress the formation of carcinogens, which relies on overcooking, high temperatures, and smoke.

If you reduce the heat as much as possible and avoid well done red meat, you can make ten-fold or more reductions in risk factors. 

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