Don’t be afraid to grill outdoors this summer

Last month, a study made more “fake news” headlines claiming that eating red meat increases your health risks. But when I looked closely at the original study, the data showed that the real problem stems from eating processed meat (like hot dogs), not from eating unprocessed meat (like grass-fed beef).

Even more recently, a report in the Washington Post focused on the supposed dangers of eating grilled meats. It’s certainly a timely topic for outdoor grilling season across the country. But once again, the new Post story lumped hot dogs (typically preserved and processed) together with hamburgers (typically fresh, unprocessed) under the same flame of scrutiny.

When did the case against meat begin?

Decades ago, lab scientists began seeking evidence that cooking meat at high temperatures, or over open flames, causes compounds in meat to undergo chemical reactions that may lead to altering of DNA in the cells of the meat. But most of the research was done in test tubes and on lab animal models. They tried to connect the dots to human cancer, but they haven’t come up with much.

In fact, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR) recently reviewed all the relevant data on meat and cancer. And it says the strongest evidence links processed meats (bacon, beef jerky, ham, and hotdogs) to colon cancer. Of course, I recommend keeping processed meats to a minimum in the first place. Fresh, unprocessed meat is a much better way to go, and a good source of protein, essential fats, vitamins, and minerals.

That said, the occasional hot dog or side of bacon isn’t the killer it’s been made out to be. Of course, if you search on the internet, you will see sensationalist, unsubstantiated claims equating eating bacon to smoking a pack of cigarettes. Environmentalist public health experts also equate breathing polluted indoor or urban air to smoking a pack per day. (Of course, smoking a pack per day or less isn’t as harmful as it’s been made out to be, either.)

So — what does the real data really say?

The IACR estimates that diets high in processed meat cause 34,000 deaths per year But that’s nowhere near comparable to heavy smoking, which causes one million deaths per year, or even urban air pollution, which causes 200,000 deaths per year.

And what about grilling? In the new IACR report, my French colleague, Loic LeMarchand (who contributed to my earlier technical books on nutrition and cancer prevention), identified possible mechanisms for a connection between grilling meat and cancer.

One line of evidence involves nitrates and nitrites used during food processing. But nitrates and nitrites also form through other metabolic processes when people digest meats, even those labeled “nitrate free.” So, we can’t be sure about the strength of this connection.

The other mechanism the IACR report points to is the same one that I mentioned above: the high heat associated with grilling, and potential alteration of DNA and formation of carcinogenic compounds because of it. But, as I said, this line of research and reasoning has come up short for decades.

The biggest risks associated with grilling appear to come into play when the meat is burned or charred.

Luckily, there are a few sensible precautions you can take to help prevent that from happening:

1. Plan ahead and marinate meat
Marinating meat before cooking will help keep the surface of the meat from getting too hot or charring. Marinades also add some delicious flavors — including lemon, olive oil, vinegar, onion, garlic, black pepper, red pepper and fresh herbs, all of which are good for your health besides.

2. Flip frequently
Although some grill masters recommend turning meat over only once during cooking, flipping meat more frequently while cooking will help you avoid burning or charring your meat—and you will be able to monitor the process.

3. Shut the lid
If you have a lid on your grill, keep it shut while cooking. This step will allow heat to build under the lid, thoroughly cook the meat throughout, without relying only on the flame’s direct heat. This step will also help prevent overcooking the surface of the meat.

The Post reporter recommended microwaving the meat first, so you don’t have to cook it as long on the grill. But that kind of simple-minded suggestion doesn’t recognize the bigger picture. I suspect microwaving meat (or anything) may replace one problem with another bigger problem.

The problem with one-size-fits-all advice

As Dr. Le Marchand points out, some evidence suggests only some people are susceptible to whatever risks there may be from grilling or eating meats. But, once again, the government and public health experts prefer to provide “one-size-fits-all advice.” Whether or not you need or want their advice, we all suffer together.

Dr. Le Marchand says (and I trust his common sense as well as his science) eating grilled meat once in a while won’t cause cancer. He believes once a week is fine. It’s always the same: Moderation is the key.

So — this summer, don’t be afraid to go outside and grill some meat. In addition to the meat, the fresh air and sunshine will do you good. And if you’re the weekend chef being sent out to grill, once a week sounds just about right.


“Evidence grows linking grilled meat and cancer, but you can lower the risk,”
Washington Post ( 6/3/2017