Beware of burning the beef

Trimming fat and using smaller pieces of meat can lower heat exposure time.

Than Tibbetts

Don’t char that chicken and don’t burn the beef.

Overcooked meat can lead to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, University professor Kristin Anderson said.

Her research in the department of epidemiology studied the diets of hundreds of volunteers and how they prepared their foods.

Anderson’s research was published last month in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

The result: Burning meat products can cause carcinogens to form in the food.

But Anderson isn’t telling anyone to drop the beef.

“That’s the reaction people have. ‘Oh, I can’t do anything now,’ ” she said. “Just use common sense; slow down.”

The carcinogenic compounds are most often formed when meat products are cooked at very high temperatures, placed close to the heat source or touched by flames, Anderson said.

“There’s a big difference between cooking and burning,” she said.

Epidemiology associate professor Lisa Harnack, who worked with Anderson on the study, said it included participants from the seven-county metropolitan area who had pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is a gland located between the stomach and the spine. It produces juices that aid in digestion and makes insulin, which the body uses to regulate the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.

As the study’s dietary assessment expert, Harnack had to find a way to assess how much people overcooked their food. Their collaborators at the National Cancer Institute provided pictures of foods cooked to varying levels on a scale of 1 to 4.

Anderson said she got into the study by looking at chemicals that cause cancer and tried to find the source. The two chemical carcinogens tracked by the study are common in cigarette smoke, she said.

Anderson said she will conduct another study to confirm the findings.

Registered dietitian Michelle Torno, the director of nutrition and consumer information for the Minnesota Beef Council, said there are several ways to ensure a healthy grilling or cooking experience. Both trimming the visible fat from meat to reduce flare-ups and using smaller pieces of meat that take less time to cook keep the meat from being exposed to too much heat.

The Minnesota Beef Council is a promotion and education council that is funded by cattle producers in the state.

Anderson said further research will study whether overcooking meat can have an effect on other cancers, including breast and prostate cancer.

Even if food is overcooked, Harnack said, simply peeling away the burned parts is enough to avoid the increased risk.

“I think the safest people can do is avoid cooking their meats to the very well-done level, or when they’re cooking or barbecuing to avoid burning their meats,” she said.