- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2000

Summer traditionally is the time to fire up the barbecue, but experts warn that grilling meats at high temperatures can increase cancer risk.

However, marinating meat, chicken and fish before cooking can help counteract that risk, says Melanie Polk, director of nutrition education at the American Cancer Society.

Several recent studies have suggested that marinating meat before cooking can cut down on heterocyclic amines (HCAs), potentially carcinogenic compounds that are released when "muscle meats" such as beef, poultry and fish are grilled at high heat. HCAs are being examined as possible risk factors for stomach, breast and colorectal cancers.

"When high-protein foods are exposed to direct flame and smoke, there is the possibility to produce HCAs," Ms. Polk says. "There is no need to completely eliminate grilled foods from your diet, but if you are looking to lower your cancer risk as much as possible, it makes sense to take a few precautions."

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., have determined that marinating chicken can reduce HCAs by nearly 99 percent. It does not matter what is used to marinate the meat, they say. Scientists at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii recently determined that marinated beef shows a similar reduction in HCAs.

Researchers still are not sure why marinating yields such an effect. Some believe the answer lies in the potential anti-oxidant compounds contained in typical marinade ingredients. Those ingredients such as vinegar, citrus juices, herbs, spices and olive oil contain naturally occurring vitamins and phytochemicals that have been shown to possess anti-cancer qualities, Ms. Polk says.

She advises choosing lean cuts of meat to grill rather than high-fat varieties such as ribs or sausages. Reducing the meat's fat content by skinning poultry or trimming meats also can reduce the risk of HCA formation, Ms. Polk says.

Partially cooking meat in the microwave before grilling and removing any charred parts afterward also can reduce HCA risk, she says.

Meanwhile, a 1999 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that women who eat well-done hamburger, steak or bacon are four times more likely to have breast cancer than those who do not.

University of South Carolina researcher Wei Zheng, the study's author, says overcooking the meat plays a role in the formation of HCAs.

The study analyzed the beef and pork consumption of 273 women with breast cancer and 657 women without cancer. The women were shown color photos of hamburger, bacon and steak cooked at various levels, and picked the pictures that best matched the way they liked their meat cooked.

The study concluded that those women who liked all three types of meat cooked very well done had a 462 percent greater chance of having breast cancer when compared with women who ate meat rare or medium.

"We have definite reasons to believe that carcinogens in well-cooked meat may be associated with breast cancer," Mr. Zheng says, "but more studies need to be conducted. If people are really concerned about their health, they may want to consider other ways of cooking meats, such as broiling or baking."

Mr. Zheng is working on a study that will analyze factors such as genetic history combined with intake of well-done meat.

Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition for the American Cancer Society, says the South Carolina study raises questions because it shows the association between preference for well-done meat and cancer, not consumption of well-done meat and cancer.

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