JAN 11, 2017 5:46 AM PST

Grilled Meats May Affect Survival of Breast Cancer Patients

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

When it comes to summertime eats, grilled and barbecued meats are widely popular. And some people even go further and insist on a little char on their food. A few studies have associated the smoked foods to increased cancer susceptibility. But breast cancer survivors may do well to heed this warning, as new findings link this type of cooked meat to higher mortality rates, specifically among these individuals.

Some people really like a little charring on their foods. Consider that some foods, such as corn or any type of barbequed meat, are even intentionally burnt a little to boost taste. In fact, the food chain Famous Dave's has made a popular signature dish out of slightly burnt meats, aptly called "Burnt Ends." While the smoky flavors and photogenic grill marks are well and tasty, why do they pose a cancer hazard?

When foods are cooked at high temperatures, chemical reactions alter the molecules in the foods. In particular, the National Cancer Institute lists two classes of chemicals formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures: Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These two chemicals are linked to DNA alterations and cancer in animal models. 

And while the cancer-causing effects of these chemicals are well-documented, what do these chemicals do for people who have successfully battled breast cancer? To answer this question, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sampled over 1,500 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 or 1997. The women reported their intake of grilled, barbeque, and smoked meat at baseline, and again at five-year intervals after the cancer treatment.

The analyzed data revealed a startling link – women who consumed more of these meats had a 23 percent increase risk of dying from the breast cancer than women who consumed low levels of the meats. In addition, among women who consumed a high amount of barbequed meat after their breast cancer diagnosis, the mortality risk was 31 percent. By contrast, consumption of the smoked meat was not linked to increased death risks in people without prior breast cancer diagnosis.

"High intake of grilled/barbecued and smoked meat may increase mortality after breast cancer,” concluded the authors in their study.

Although the study did not pose a mechanism behind this increased mortality rate for breast cancer survivors and smoked meat, it’s plausible to imagine that the aforementioned chemicals, HCAs and PAHs, are at play. Perhaps the DNA in these individuals are more susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of these chemicals, thereby causing a bigger mutation load versus individuals without a prior breast cancer diagnosis.

While more research uncovers the mechanism behind this link, perhaps we would all benefit by the moderation rule when it comes to eating grilled foods.

Additional sources: MNT, EurekAlert!

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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