Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2005

Did guys in the Stone Age enjoy barbecuing as much as we do? Probably. It doesn't take much imagination to picture one of our ancestors picking apart the carcass of an animal that had been caught in a forest fire and savoring the softer texture and sweeter taste of cooked meat. These accidental barbecues probably happened thousands of times by the time humans learned how to control fire and to cook meat on purpose.

Most societies have been roasting meat over a bed of hot coals ever since. During the explosive growth of the suburbs after World War Two the outdoor grill became a fixture on almost every patio, deck and balcony in the country. Instead of struggling with a pan of messy charcoal briquets and lighter fluid, today's barbecue chef presides over an elegant, propane-powered, brushed-metal behemoth.

There's a dark side to barbecue: an accumulation of research studies that associate well-done and charred meat and fish with cancer of the colon and pancreas. The association is not as strong as the one that links smoking to cancer, but it is fairly consistent. The association is no longer in doubt but the mechanism by which meat cooked at high temperatures causes cancer is a challenging question for researchers.

The cooking process, especially when it results in charring, produces chemical substances known as heterocyclic amines and benzopyrenes from certain constituents of proteins. There is a higher risk of colon cancer among persons who habitually consume meat that is fried or barbecued.

Is there some way to reduce the risk, while still enjoying barbecued ribs and hamburgers? I suggest a few things that you can do that won't deprive you of your favorite dishes.

First, use less heat. Make the charcoal bed smaller and keep the heat down with an occasional squirt of water from a pistol grip sprayer. Try a lower setting with a gas-fired unit.

Second, experiment with marinade recipes. Any search engine will take you to hundreds of recipes in a millisecond. Hawaiian researchers found that a marinade made from teriyaki sauce or turmeric-garlic sauce reduced the formation of heterocyclic amines. Surprisingly, marinating with a traditional barbecue sauce raised the levels.

Third, increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. The evidence for the protective effect of a diet high in fruits and vegetables has come from scores of studies. Before humans became efficient hunters they were primarily vegetarians. No one is quite sure why a vegetarian diet makes colon cancer less likely, but there are plenty of theories. Such a diet is high in fiber and keeps things moving rapidly through the intestinal tract. That could limit the time during which cancer-causing substances are in contact with the lining of the intestines. Fruits and vegetables contain salicylates, which also lower the risk of cancer.

Eat less meat by sticking to standard portion sizes. A serving of meat or fish consists of a piece about the size of your palm, not including the fingers. That's roughly 3 1/2 ounces for the average-sized person and about half as much as most Americans eat at a given meal. Instead of more meat add more vegetables.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at