Tips That Help Reduce Carcinogens in Well-Done Meat

Grilled Steak with Flame
Getty Images/Mike Lang

Red meat, poultry, and fish contain amino acids, sugars, and a protein called creatinine. Cooking, particularly under high temperatures, is thought to convert these compounds into heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Large amounts of these compounds have been linked to cancer in preliminary research.

Research on Carcinogens and Cancer

  • A study by the National Institutes of Health, published in the journal Cancer Research, found that well-done red meat was associated with an increased risk of colorectal adenoma, the precursor lesion to colorectal cancer.
  • Another study examined the association between dietary intake of HCAs and PAHs and pancreatic cancer. Participants provided information about their usual meat intake, preparation method (e.g., stewed, fried, or grilled/barbecued), and usually level of meat doneness. The researchers found that well-done barbecued and pan-fried meats may be associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • The Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial examined the association between these meat compounds and prostate cancer risk using a food questionnaire among 29,361 men. Although total meat intake or red or white meat intake was not associated with prostate cancer risk, very well-done meat was associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer.

6 Meat Preparation Tips to Try

These compounds are formed within meat, not just on the surface, so you can't get rid of them by scraping off the surface. But researchers are finding that certain preparation and cooking techniques may reduce the formation of these compounds:

  1. Cook with cherries: Researchers at Michigan State University found that adding cherries, which are rich in antioxidants, to ground beef prior to pan-frying reduced the HCAs produced by nearly 69 to 78.5 percent. Try mixing 1 pound of ground meat with 1 cup of ground tart cherries before cooking.
  2. Consider vitamin E: Adding vitamin E to meat has been found to significantly reduce the formation of HCAs. In studies, 120 milligrams of vitamin E powder was mixed into 3.5-ounce patties. Talk with your primary care provider, however, before using supplements (including vitamin E) regularly.
  3. Add garlic, rosemary, and sage: These antioxidant seasonings may help to block the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Try adding crushed garlic and fresh or dried rosemary or sage to meat mixtures before cooking.
  4. Cook with olive oil: Phenolic compounds in olive oil have antioxidant properties that have been found to reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Try cooking with virgin olive oil, or use it in marinades.
  5. Drink green tea with your meal: Polyphenols in green tea may help our bodies excrete carcinogenic compounds. Try drinking a cup of green tea regularly, especially with meals containing cooked meat. For more information, find out how to brew green tea to increase antioxidants.
  1. Find other ways of cooking. Try using liquid-based cooking methods, such as boiling, steaming, or stewing. If a dry-heat finish is desired, try pre-cooking meat, poultry and fish using liquid-based cooking methods to minimize HCAs and then finishing them in the oven or on the grill. Just be sure to drain the juices and don't use them to make gravy or other sauces, because the juices produced during cooking may contain proteins that form HCAs.

Other tips? Marinate meat in thin liquids before cooking, eat less red meat, limit your consumption of nitrite-cured meats (which includes many cold cuts, hot dogs, bacon and ham), trim fat, and don't eat meat that's burned or over-done (of course, ground beef, pork and poultry always should be cooked properly to avoid food poisoning).

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