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New Report Finds Grilled Chicken Contains Highest Levels of Carcinogens

By Jennifer Reilly, R.D.

grilled chickenAre grilled foods increasing your family’s risk of cancer? Many consumers don’t realize that grilling some food products can produce cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs.

Which foods contain the highest concentrations of these carcinogens? To answer that question, nutrition professionals with The Cancer Project determined the level of HCAs found in commonly grilled foods.

The results, detailed in a new report titled “The Five Worst Foods to Grill,” are eye-opening. Grilled chicken, wrongly considered a healthful food by some consumers, actually contains the highest concentrations of carcinogenic HCAs. Other meat products, including beef, pork, salmon, and hamburger, also contain alarmingly high HCA levels.

Health authorities are increasingly concerned about the role HCAs play in America’s high cancer rates. In January 2005, the federal government added HCAs to its official list of carcinogens.

Researchers have known for decades that meat consumption dramatically increases cancer risk. Recent studies underscore that fact. In 2003, for example, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that the rate of breast cancer among premenopausal women who ate the most animal fat was a third higher than that of women who ate the least animal fat.

Carcinogens Form as Meat Cooks

But while animal fat itself increases cancer risk, it’s also clear that the HCAs found in grilled meats are a critical factor. As known mutagens, HCAs can bind directly to DNA, cause mutation, and promote cancer initiation.

HCAs are produced during cooking from the creatine, amino acids, and sugars found in chicken and other muscle tissues. Grilling is particularly dangerous because the high heat and long cooking times promote the formation of carcinogens. The longer and hotter the meat is cooked, the more of these compounds form.

Grilling meat also produces other mutagens, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are widely believed to play a significant role in human cancers.

Many Vegetarian Options Available

To avoid these carcinogens, Americans don’t have to stop grilling. They should simply choose vegetarian options. As the new Cancer Project report explains, safer alternatives include veggie burgers, portobello mushroom steaks, and veggie brochettes.

Grilled vegetables and fruits have no HCAs or negligible amounts, even when cooked over the hottest flames. These plant-based foods are also low in fat and full of fiber—and they’re packed with subtle and delicious flavors, especially when they’re hot off the grill. For more vegetarian recipes or a copy of the full report, go to


Good Medicine Cover

Autumn 2005
Volume XIV
Number 4

Good Medicine

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