Dear Dr. Blonz: As temperatures begin to rise, I turn to cooking outside on the grill. Every year I get reminded of the potential dangers of barbecuing and wanted some input about the formation of carcinogens. — L.G., Tulsa, Oklahoma
Dear L.G.: Now that warmer weather is in the forecast, the grills of America will spring into action. Cooking food this way does have its "dark" side in that along with adding good taste, it can add potential risk factors. But let's flesh out this serving of risk by seeing how it fits with other behaviors we face every day.
A key issue is that when you use high heat for cooking protein foods such as meat, pork, chicken or fish, mutagens can form as the food is charred. A mutagen is a substance with the ability to cause mutations, or changes, in a cell's genetic material. Mutations occur all the time, and most don't amount to much because our immune system is designed to hustle them away before they mess things up. The danger is certain types of mutations occurring in an unfortunate sequence, in the wrong place and time with the body's immune system in a state of vulnerability. This can result in a healthy cell turning cancerous.
A key issue with grilling is when fat drippings hit the heat source and become the potent carcinogen "benzopyrene," which can rise in the smoke and get deposited on the food. (A carcinogen is a substance that causes a mutation shown to cause cancer.) Our immune system is still on the scene, but the greater your exposures, the greater your risk.
Now that we know what can happen when you cook on the grill, let's discuss its relative risk. No, this is not the risk that your relatives will drop by unannounced; it's a way to consider one hazard in relation to others. The classic article by Dr. Richard Wilson in Technology Review provides an interesting list of behaviors that increase the odds of death by one in a million. These include: traveling 10 miles by bicycle or 300 miles by car; rock climbing for 1.5 minutes; smoking 1.4 cigarettes; canoeing 6 minutes; having one chest X-ray in a good hospital; spending 20 minutes being a man aged 60; and eating 100 charcoal-broiled steaks.
Bikers, drivers, canoers, rock climbers and especially males over 60 would feel that these risks are acceptable. Given this, the relative risk of eating grilled steaks, while it should be acknowledged, might seem a bit less onerous. The point here is not to dismiss risk in a cavalier manner. If you char your foods, these substances can be formed. If you eat charbroiled foods, they can enter your body. But there are steps to lessen this risk. For example, don't place the food directly over the heat to prevent the drippings from generating smoke. (Check more ways to reduce the risks when grilling at b.link/fs82gp.)
Finally, don't lose sight of that big picture. If you are worrying about grilling while sitting in the sun without sunscreen, or are smoking, overweight, with untreated high blood pressure, and with an inactive lifestyle eating an unhealthful diet, your priorities are all wrong. These factors represent a greater risk than the chicken on the grill.