Skip to nav Skip to content

Few things say summer like a juicy steak or a burger hot off the grill. But does indulging in red meat, especially grilled or smoked meats, come with an increased risk of developing cancer?

“Higher levels of consumption of red meat has been linked to several chronic diseases. And there is convincing evidence of an association between  colorectal cancer risk and higher intakes of red meat,” said Dr. Kathleen Egan, an epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center.

A recent pooled analysis of 19 prospective studies found about a 25% higher risk of colon cancer comparing the highest and lowest levels of beef intake. The same studies did not show an increased association of cancer with chicken and fish. Egan says the mechanism explaining why red meat may be associated with increased colon cancer risk is unknown. “It may relate to heme iron in red meat which can damage DNA, or the way red meat is cooked or preserved,” she said.

Cooking meat at high temperatures by grilling or frying could potentially elevate the risk, but a definite conclusion on this is still up for debate. The grilling and smoking processes that give meats that charred appearance and smoky flavor generate some potentially cancer-causing compounds in the food.  Charred, blackened areas of the meat – particularly well-done cuts - contain heterocyclic aromatic amines. And smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that can cling to the surface of the meat.

Processed red meats, such as ham, sausages, bacon and hot dogs, undergo treatments like curing, smoking or the use of chemical preservatives and additives to improve shelf life and/or taste. The problem is those processes introduce N-nitroso compounds, which some studies have found to be linked to cancer risk.

So, what are your best bets for safer summer grilling?

  • Keep that grill surface clean and use aluminum foil to avoid smoky flare-ups
  • Skip the lighter fluid, if possible
  • Choose thinner cuts of meat that will cook faster
  • Trim any fat that can drip and produce more smoke
  • Pass on the “burnt ends” - discard any charred, blackened areas
  • When it comes to red meat, don’t cook until it’s well-done

Or skip the meaty risks and give the fresh fruits and veggies of summer a turn!

For more information, check out this fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute.