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Cancer from sausages, steaks and charcoal?

According to the calendar, the solstice on June 21 officially marks the beginning of Summer - and with it comes the season of outdoor barbecues. Few activities are as strongly associated with Summer as the act of outdoor grilling with friends and family. With the use of an open fire, food has a unique taste that has a great appeal to many. This experienced taste is based on a non-enzymatic browning reaction known as the Maillard reaction. When heated, amino acids and reducing sugars (such as glucose or fructose) react with one another and form a new chemical compound which is responsible for the characteristic taste, smell and the appearance of grilled or fried food. However, this reaction also has a darker side to it. At temperatures above 130°C, so-called engl. heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs) may be formed within the muscle fibers. This group of substances is partially responsible for dampening the enjoyment of barbecues in recent years because, as studies have revealed, the regular consumption of grilled meat is associated with a high risk of cancer.

In addition to the HCAs, it seems that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are also responsible. While they are usually found in plastics, paints and varnishes, they can also form in grilled meat, when the fat or the marinade juices drip down onto the embers or into the open fire. Animal testing has revealed that HCAs and PAHs damage the genome in large quantities and have a carcinogenic effect. Therefore, a carcinogenic effect in humans can be inferred. However, the formation of these pollutants can be significantly reduced through the appropriate measures. For this reason, authorities and leading health organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US National Cancer Institute, recommend following some rules when having a barbecue.


It is recommended to marinate your meat before grilling. Various studies have shown that marinades rich in antioxidants can reduce the formation of HCAs by up to 90%. Marinades full of fresh herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, are proven to be particularly effective. As a component of marinades, beer also appears to have a protective effect. Above all, dark beer varieties with a high proportion of antioxidative phenols are able to counteract the development of HCAs. 

When grilling

The way the food is grilled is crucial to avoiding the development of many toxic substances within the meat. For example, gas and electric grills are preferable to the classic charcoal grill, and the meat should be grilled as briefly as possible and at a low heat. Likewise, the food should not come into direct contact with an open flame or flue gas, and should be deglazed with beer during the grilling process. When using a charcoal grill, it's recommended to keep the food at an adequate distance from the embers. In order to reduce the development of flue gas, the use of aluminum shells is a good alternative, as it catches the dripping fat and marinade. However, this alternative is also questionable, as aluminum releases salts and acids through heat, which may enter the food. To be cautious, stainless steel trays can be used as an alternative to aluminum.


In general, heterocyclic aromatic amines can develop in all types of meat and fish. However, studies have shown that the development of these compounds in poultry meat is significantly higher than in red meat varieties. Cured products such as ham and various kinds of sausages should be completely avoided on the grill, as they produce nitrosamines when heated, which is associated with the development of gastric carcinomas. As a rule, it’s best to use thin and lean pieces of meat. Likewise, by pre-cooking the meat, you can shorten the grilling time. A healthy alternative to fish and meat are grilled vegetables and fruits, since most harmful substances are produced by heating animal proteins. Even though grilling meat may not be an entirely healthy pleasure, having a barbecue from time to time is still fine as long as these recommendations are taken into consideration. Ultimately, having a barbecue follows the same principle of Paracelsus' wisdom, as with all things in the life:

All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.

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