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A piece of steak being barbecued on the grill

To lower your risk for pancreatic cancer, don't char or burn your steaks.

How you cook makes a difference

How you cook makes a difference

From M, winter 2006

Researchers at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health and Cancer Center have found further evidence that avoiding grilled, fried, or barbecued meat or fish that is very well done and burned or charred may help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, one of the most fatal forms of cancer. The study appears in the current issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention journal, which is published by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

Cancer-causing compounds heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and benzo(a)pyrene (B(a)P) form on the surface of meat or fish during grilling and frying; the levels of these carcinogens depend on the cooking temperature and the degree of doneness. Consuming higher amounts of well-done meat or fish containing these carcinogens is associated with increased risk of pancreatic cancer. By contrast, the cancer-causing compounds do not form in baked or stewed meats. The type of meat or fish doesn't matter, nor does the amount eaten. The thing to avoid is cooking hot enough or long enough to char the surface.

"In earlier research, we found strong and robust associations between pancreatic cancer and intake of well-done grilled and barbecued meat, as well as a positive association with fried meat intake," says Kristin Anderson, the University of Minnesota cancer epidemiologist who led the study. "This current study looked at the risk of pancreatic cancer in relation to the intake of particular carcinogens that form in meat cooked at high temperatures."

Study subjects with pancreatic cancer were twice as likely to fall in to the uppermost 20 percent of intake of either very well done grilled or fried meats or fish or amounts of carcinogens from such products as were the controls. The authors believe this means that people in the highest 20 percent in take of barbecued or fried meat or fish gave twice the normal risk for pancreatic cancer. In the United States, the yearly incidence of this cancer is 6.3 cases per 100,000 for women and 8.3 cases per 100,000 for men. More cases occur in the developed world and smoking is a major risk factor. Study participants included 192 patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and 670 people who did not have this cancer served as the comparison group. In addition to information on health and dietary habits such as cigarette smoking and how frequently they ate fruits, vegetables, fish, red and processed meats, coffee, tea and alcohol, all of the participants provided information on their usual meat intake and preparation methods. Meat doneness preferences were measured using photographs that showed internal doneness and external brownness. "Only a few previous studies of pancreatic cancer have considered methods of meat preparation along with intake, and none have incorporated doneness preferences to the extent we have here," says Anderson. "Not accounting for how people prepare their meat, in addition to how much meat they consume, may explain some of the inconsistent findings in past research on diet and pancreatic cancer." To reduce the levels of carcinogens in meat, Anderson suggests following these guidelines:

Fast food hamburgers are usually cooked too fast and with no charring, so they don't typically form carcinogens, says Anderson.

Anderson collaborated with researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the Food and Drug Administration's National Center for Toxicological Research and the University of Arkansas to conduct this study. The NCI sponsored this study.

In the United States, pancreatic cancer ranks as the 11th most common cancer, but it is the fourth most common cause of cancer death. Each year about 32,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the average survival time after diagnosis is three to four months. Aside from cigarette smoking, few risk factors have been identified for pancreatic cancer. These new findings may provide a means for reducing the risk.

To listen to an audio vignette on grilling meat, click on University of Minnesota Moment. The University of Minnesota Moment is a daily radio feature highlighting University expertise on a wide range of timely topics.

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