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Grilled Vegies and Cancer
April 18th, 2010

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Dear John,

I’ve heard that grilled meats can cause cancer. Does this apply to grilled vegetables, or only to grilled meats? I love broiled vegetables, but am I endangering my health eating them?

Kirk

Dear Kirk,

There are definite health risks associated with eating grilled or broiled meat, poultry and fish, but these do not for the most part apply to plant foods.

When grilled or broiled, red meat, poultry and fish produce cancer-causing compounds called HCAs (heterocyclic amines). When HCAs are metabolized in the body, they can attack the genetic material in cells. The damage can lead to cancer. Different people metabolize HCAs at different rates, which affects the amount of damage they do. For most people, though, consumption of HCAs seems to increase the risk of cancers of the breast, colon, prostate and stomach. Marinating meat, fish and poultry before grilling reduces but does not eliminate the creation of HCAs.

There’s more to this story. When fat from meat, poultry or fish drips onto hot coals or stones, other cancer-causing substances are also formed, called PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). These carcinogens find their way back into the cooking animal foods through smoke and flareups.

Grilling or broiling plant foods, on the other hand, is much safer. Cooking vegetables and fruits at high temperatures is probably not the best idea, but even toast that has been burned, and dishes that have been “blackened “ (in which only the seasoning is charred) present a substantially lower risk than grilled or broiled meats..

I’m sure you’ve seen how bread browns while being baked. This is due to a process known as the Maillard reaction. Maillard molecules are precursors of the HCAs that form when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Maillard molecules also form when vegetables or fruits are grilled or broiled, but they don’t represent nearly the danger posed by full blown HCAs, which are formed by the grilling or broiling of animal products.

Please enjoy your broiled veggies. Of course, it’s never a good idea to overcook food, or to eat food that has been significantly burnt or charred. But the real danger here clearly lies with animal products.

All the best,
John

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