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Carcinogens from Cooking (Pt. 1)

It is a wonder that the human body can masterfully extinguish so many different harmful compounds from its natural metabolic processes, let alone what it encounters from the environment! On the other hand, we can sometimes submit ourselves to unnecessary loads of harmful chemicals and environmental stressors. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, it's a good thing we have "brains in our heads and feet in our shoes", and we can avoid harmful things however we choose! One of these hot topics in the nutrition world today is carcinogens from foods. Carcinogens, simply put, are chemical substances that alter DNA which can increase your risk of cancer. We know that spending too much time out in the sun increases our risk of cancer, as does coming into contact with various harmful chemicals like heavy metals, due to the damage inflicted on our DNA. Some of us are aware that certain foods are prepared and preserved with substances that, in high amounts consumed frequently, can damage DNA. Why does research point to the conclusion that diets high in meat, particularly red and processed meats are linked to cancer? After extensive reserach, the United Nations' 2015 report concluded that red meat is linked to increased rates of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. A press release in October contained the statement, “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent”. Meat and fish cooked and processed using high temperature cooking methods can produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and N-nitroso compounds (NOCs), which are known carcinogens. NOCs are primarily found in cooked foods that contain nitrites/nitrates, such as processed meats, cured meats, and pickled fish. HCAs are formed when a meat is “well-done” and can be found in pan residues and in the brown crispy crust on meats that is formed from cooking. The higher the temperature that is used to cook the meat, the more HCAs are formed. PAHs are primarily formed from meat smoking and charcoal grilling. Too bad it’s barbecue season!! How do we reduce the amount of carcinogens from meat we eat in our diet? Many are following the trend to eat more vegetarian meals (which is not actually a trend, and has been endorsed as an optimal way to health by various well-known philosophical and scientific minds). Most health organizations today recommend to limit red and processed meat consumption, and switch to white meats such as chicken, turkey, and fish. If you can’t say no to a steak, avoid cooking methods that use high temperatures like grilling/barbecuing, pan frying, broiling, and roasting. Rather, steam or boil to cook, and spend very little time pan-frying and grilling. Avoid over-cooking and burning meats, and remove the dark charred crusts and burnt surfaces on cooked meats. You can marinate meats with a vinegar, olive oil, or lemon juice with natural spices and herbs prior to cooking, which has been shown to reduce formation of PAHs/HCAs. I call the “limiting” of meat in all forms a “harm reduction” method. For the purpose of maximizing nutrient value and minimizing carcinogenic load from foods, I usually recommend beans, lentils, meat alternatives, and tofu for as many meals as you can handle, but make sure you have some great recipes or advice from good vegetarian cooks on how to prepare them so you will love the taste! Stay connected with us for Part 2 of “Carcinogens from Food”, where we discuss carcinogens from cooking starches! Please do send me a message via Twitter or Facebook if you are interested in learning more about this topic or working with me one-on-one!

Thank you to Christofer Cruz for his contributions to this post.

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