That link has been known since the early 1960s, said James Sparandeo, a biochemist and research scientist who specializes in the relationship between
nutrition and cancer prevention and treatment.
But it is disputed by the Barbecue Industry Association, which represents manufacturers in the $6.2 billion barbecuing market. According to the industry group, in the 67 million American homes where grilling occurred 1.7 billion times last yearthere "has never been any proof of carcinogenic risk
from eating barbecued foods."
True, there is no direct link between grilling and specific types of cancer, Lough said, but there is a general link between cancer and grilling.
The problem with grilling - or cooking over an open fire - is that toxic compounds are formed when dripping fat hits the heat source, be it wood, charcoal, gas or electricity. The chemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), rise with the smoke and land on the food, Sparandeo said.
Some PAHs, most notably benzopyrene, can cause cancer.
For example, research has shown that chefs in restaurants where grills are used may be more likely to develop lung cancer, Sparandeo said.
And, in countries where most of the cooking is done over open fires, there are higher rates of certain cancers, Lough said. But in those same countries, food is likely to be preserved by smoking or pickling - two more potentially carcinogenic procedures.
So, the link between cancer and grilling is a cloudy one.
Cloudy enough that, in 1989, the National Academy of Sciences backed off its earlier cautions that advised moderation in cooking over open fires. The American Institute for Cancer Research followed suit.
"The risk has not disappeared, but compared to other risks . . . grilling is much smaller," Lough said. "Fat is still the worst offender. It is clearly linked with stomach, prostate and breast cancer and coupled with a high risk for heart disease."
After 12 years of research on carcinogens in food, Michael Pariza, director of The Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, agreed with Lough.
"I don't want to make it sound like I'm being blase about it - the way you cook clearly affects the level of these carcinogens," Pariza said. But when it comes to grilling, "the risk is pretty darned small."
According to Lough, "the amount of carcinogens are . . . not enough to scare anyone into giving up barbecuing. The reality is we face carcinogens every day and our bodies are capable of handling them."
Sparandeo says there is more cause for concern. In fact, benzopyrene is used by scientists looking to induce cancer in research animals.
And laboratory rats, fed a steady diet of barbecued food, do develop cancer at a higher rate than those not eating grilled food, he said. The rodents got cancer even more frequently when they were given alcohol with their barbecue.
Sparandeo admits that humans may respond differently to barbecue and cocktails than laboratory animals. But, he said, "one grilled steak has as much benzopyrene as 600 cigarettes."
The effect is not necessarily the same, he added, because "in one case you are eating it and in the other case you are smoking it."
Still, "scientists now believe that 35 to 50 percent of environmentally produced cancers are related to diet," Sparandeo said. "One of the many offenders is barbecuing, which does not suggest that it is in and of itself a problem, but in conjunction with everything else, it can be a problem."
It is that compound problem that concerns the experts: A few martinis with a fat-marbled, grilled sirloin, followed by cheesecake, is more likely to be a diet for disaster than grilled swordfish washed down with mineral water and a peach for dessert.
"Don't be scared away from barbecuing," Lough said. "Just use some common sense when doing it."
That includes switching to lower fat foods like fish and vegetables, which are less likely to cause grill flare-ups and have the added bonus of being healthier overall, he said.
Sensible grilling also means no shooting flames, Sparandeo said. "People love to press down hard on the meat and get a three-foot-high flame. That's the potentially dangerous stuff."
And no grilling at all for anyone with cancer, said Sparandeo, who developed special diets used by some oncologists as part of their treatment plan for cancer patients.
But for those who are cancer-free, occasional grilling is not the worst health offense, Sparandeo said. "After all, people want to live."
One answer for health-conscious barbecuers may be the Q grill from Hermelin Inc. The Swedish-designed grill features a slim, rectangular charcoal basket, which provides a broad, toaster-like cooking surface for the cooking baskets on either side. "People don't know if it's a grill or a rat trap," said Carl Gunell, president of the firm in Costa Mesa, Calif.
A pan at the bottom catches drippings, reducing or eliminating the formation of potentially carcinogenic smoke.
"From what we've seen of . . . it, it does remove a lot of the risk associated with grilling," Lough said.
The grill also is easy to clean, Gunell said, because the baskets fit in standard dishwashers and the drip pan, filled with water, collects ashes and grease. It too can be washed.
At prices ranging from $59 to $69, the vertical grill is making its U.S. retail debut this summer, and already it is catching on, with several upscale mail-order catalogues and retailers lining up for back orders.
Four restaurants in California also are using the grill - for free. In exchange, they are developing recipes that Gunell hopes will result in a Q cookbook.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which lists the Q grill in its catalogue, suggests using liquid smoke flavoring to replace the smoky flavor of conventional barbecuing.
No long-term safety studies have been done on the flavoring, which is made
from real smoke that is condensed and filtered, but it probably is safer than grill smoke, according to a CSPI nutrition newsletter. Liquid smoke is available in the condiment section of most supermarkets.
"If you are a real hard-core barbecue chef and you like those little black lines on your meat, you won't get that from a vertical grill because there is no direct contact with the flames," Gunell said. "What you will get is something that is more tender, more moist."
So, regardless of whether the vertical grill becomes the new wave of barbecuing, some of the experts' advice won't change: Low-fat, high-fiber diets help fight cancer and heart disease.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For free brochures on dietary guidelines to lower cancer risk, write to the American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington, D.C. 20069 or call 202-328-7744.
To subscribe to the Nutrition Action Newsletter, write the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009-5728, or call 202-332-9110.
To order the Q grill, call 800-545-4808. Delivered price from Hermelin is $59. A wagon-style version, the Grand Q, also is available in oak, teak or white for $630 to $1,020.
For referral to physicians using Sparandeo's nutrition plan or to order his book, Scientific Relationships Between Diet and Cancer Survival, call 908-571-0805.
HOW FAT IS IT?
Here are the grams of fat in 5 ounces of several raw foods popular for outdoor grilling. By comparison, 5 ounces of tofu has 6 grams of fat.
Chicken breast, no skin 2
Chicken breast, with skin 13
Drumstick, no skin 5
Drumstick, with skin 12
Chicken wing, no skin 5
Chicken wing, with skin 23
Chicken thigh, no skin 6
Chicken thigh, with skin 22
3 chicken hot dogs 28
Flounder, sole 2
BEEF, PORK, LAMB
Top round steak 13
Extra lean ground beef 24
Lean ground beef 30
Regular ground beef 38
Pork spareribs 34
Pork top loin 37
T-bone steak 37
3 beef hot dogs 41
Lamb, shoulder 34
Lamb, leg 23