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Playing with Fire: Grilled Chicken Contains Cancer-Causing Compounds

By Jennifer Reilly, R.D.

Health-conscious consumers have long steered clear of the fat and cholesterol in fried chicken. But grilled chicken may be even worse. Cancer-causing chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) have been found in chicken, and the very highest concentrations occur when it is grilled. 

Fried chicken is every bit as bad as you thought: A KFC chicken breast harbors 135 milligrams of cholesterol and gets more than half its calories from fat. A typical KFC chicken breast holds 400 calories and 24 grams of fat, including 6 grams of saturated fat, the type associated with high cholesterol levels, breast cancer, and insulin resistance.

And you don’t want to eat chicken undercooked. At retail stores, salmonella and campylobacter are commonly found on chicken products. These live bacteria easily transfer to cooking surfaces, utensils, and hands and can cause a serious intestinal illness.

Many consumers have imagined that grilled chicken is a healthier option. But scientific evidence suggests that, when it comes to cancer risk, grilled chicken could be among the worst choices.

grill and chickenHigher Cancer Rates

Researchers have known for years that meat-eaters have higher cancer rates, compared with people who avoid meat.

Experts now know that grilling meat, especially chicken, produces carcinogenic HCAs. HCAs are formed from the creatinine, amino acids, and sugar found in muscle tissue. More HCAs are produced by long cooking times and hot temperatures, which make grilling, pan frying, and oven broiling particularly dangerous cooking methods.

In January 2005, the federal government added HCAs to its list of carcinogens. But many Americans remain unaware that these compounds lurk in cooked meat. As known mutagens, HCAs can bind directly to DNA and cause mutations, the first step in the development of cancer. Grilling is also problematic because when fat from meat drips onto an open flame, carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form and are deposited back onto the meat through smoke.
Scientists have discovered more than 16 different HCAs. One type commonly found in grilled meats is PhIP, which has been on California’s list of cancer-causing chemicals for more than a decade. Scientists have not determined a safe consumption level of PhIP, meaning that any amount is believed to potentially increase cancer risk.

Recent studies have shown that the consumption of well-done meat, which contains PhIP and other HCAs, is associated with an increased risk for colon, rectal, esophageal, lung, larynx, pancreatic, prostate, stomach, and breast cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In a recent review of 30 epidemiologic studies on the link between eating well-done meat and cancer at various sites, 80 percent of the studies showed a positive correlation. HCAs have also been specifically linked to colorectal cancer: One review found that high cooking temperature increased colon cancer risk almost twofold and increased risk for rectal cancer by 60 percent.

HCAs are not the only cancer risk that comes from eating meat. Countries with a higher fat intake, especially fat from animal products, have a higher incidence of breast cancer. One hypothesized reason is that low-fiber, high-fat foods increase the amount of estrogen in the bloodstream, which encourages breast cancer cell growth. A similar phenomenon can occur when men eat high-fat fare, leading to a higher risk of prostate cancer.

The consumption of meat and other fatty foods is strongly linked to colon cancer. Recent studies have shown that red meat—even red meat cooked at a low temperature—can increase colon cancer risk by as much as 300 percent.

Avoiding HCAs

These facts seem to pose a dilemma for poultry-eating consumers. Cook chicken too little and you could easily end up with a bacterial infection. Turn up the heat enough to kill the bacteria, and you may create cancer-causing compounds.
Here’s the answer: Instead of meat products, try grilling up a homemade veggie burger or vegetable and tofu kebobs.

Choosing plant-based foods can lower cancer risk in other ways as well. Not only are plant foods low in fat and high in protective fiber, but they also contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, which have been shown to help prevent cancer.


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