Does Grilling Cause Cancer?

Medically Reviewed

Q. Can barbecued meat cause cancer?

A. From William Dale, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and chief, section of geriatrics and palliative medicine, The University of Chicago Medicine, Chicago:

Although researchers have stopped short of declaring a cause-and-effect relationship between barbecued meat and cancer in humans, they note that such a relationship has been established in animal studies and is likely to apply to humans based on research showing a positive correlation between grilled-meat consumption and cancer rates.

The culprits are chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds form when meats such as beef, poultry, pork, or fish are cooked at a high temperature or over an open flame.

HCAs and PAHs are known to cause changes in DNA, which in some people may translate to cancer, particularly breast, colon, stomach, and prostate cancers. A November 2015 study from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center found that the risk of renal cell carcinoma, or kidney cancer, is associated with cooking meat at high temperatures over open flames or pan-frying.

Another recent review from the World Health Organization concluded that higher amounts of processed meats and red meats, especially those cooked over an open flame, are associated with a higher risk of certain cancers, although they stopped short of saying there was a causal connection and acknowledged that red meat contains important nutrients.

Find out more about how to grill safely.