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Don't Burn Your Turkey! Here's Why...


By Stacy Gage, Texas Woman's University Dietetic Intern

Burnt Turkey!When you prepare meats do you worry about it causing cancer? Do you have a family member or friend with cancer? In my family, I have a cousin in his mid-thirty’s and found out he had colon cancer. He had no family history but he does have history of cooking meats. This made me really curious and to start reading scientific journal articles. It has been proven that when preparing foods at very high temperatures like frying and grilling over an open flame, certain cancers can develop. The two most current carcinogens include heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) these are formed during that heating process in the muscle of the meats, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry. In addition, the formation of these carcinogens are influenced by the type of meat, the cooking time, the cooking temperature, and the cooking method. To help prevent cancer, meats should be processed at a lower temperatures for a longer time. This can help avoid contact of food with an open fire, when the fire is located below the meat. However, for safety reasons, the cooking method must guarantee the inactivation of all possible bacteria.

Also, there have been questions on how marinades can have effect the production of carcinogens. I do not know about you, but I use marinades for flavor, tenderness and moistness of meats. They can also be used as a barrier between the meat and the hot fire. Some go as even far to believe the marinade can help decrease the chance of the meat forming the cancer causing agents to form. Is this true? Yes! In one of the journal articles I read, they found that certain sugars can have impact on the amount of carcinogens produced. The results showed that chicken marinated had higher amount of carcinogens form than brown sugar; whereas chicken marinated with honey had the lowest carcinogens form.

Here are some facts you may not have known:


  1. Nearly 99% of all PAHs are found in the outer layer of dry sausages.
  2. Meat related carcinogens are associated with increased risk of colorectal, breast, prostate, pancreatic and other cancers.
  3. The more acidic the marinade is, the less amount carcinogens will form.

In conclusion, controlling temperature is important in minimizing the formation of the carcinogens and their intake can be reduced by not consuming the outermost layer of the meats. If still unsure, just remember the darker the color of the meat after cooked, the higher risk of carcinogens produced!

For more information, go to:

National Cancer Institute: Chemicals Cooked in Meat at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk 

Kids Eat Right: Grilling for Safety 

For other holiday food safety tips, head on over to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Home Food Safety website.

Are you a dietitian or any other science profession?  Read Stacy's more technical explaination here!

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