News about carcinogens is everywhere. It is common to find a warning sign or article about a substance that leads to cancer almost anywhere, which can be scary. Does everything cause cancer? Do we have to stop eating foods we love? And What can we do to lower our risk?
To help demystify this dilemma, we must first understand what cancer is and what classifies a carcinogen. Cancer is very complex and easy to fear. It is important, therefore, to remember that there are many factors that contribute to this disease and that its science is still developing. If we knew everything about it, we would have a cure.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in some part of the body (1). These abnormal cells do not perform their normal function, and their uncontrolled growth can have fatal effects on their tissue of origin and throughout the body. Cancer cells are “super cells” evolved to withstand body mechanisms meant to kill them- like immune attack and programmed cell death.
Cancer is a genetic disease caused by an accumulation of detrimental variation in the genome. The genome is the collection of all genetic material in an organism. Detrimental variation in the genome can depend on many factors. Factors include inherited predispositions, age, lifestyle, and carcinogenic exposure- and there are many more.
What are Carcinogens?
Carcinogens are substances and exposures that cause cancer. Examples of carcinogens include toxins in tobacco smoke, different types of radiation (like UV and Gamma), viral infections (like HPV and Hepatitis B), and asbestos.
Carcinogens do not guarantee cancer, some are worse than others, and their effect varies per individual. Asbestos, for example, a more dangerous carcinogen than processed meats. Some individuals may already be predisposed to certain cancer types and their risk is higher than it is in others.
Carcinogens in Meat
Meats, red and processed, are getting a lot of attention for containing carcinogens. It seems that the way we are cooking meat has an effect on the development of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAHs)- two carcinogens.
HACs result from cooking components of meat -amino acids, sugar, and creatine- at high temperatures (typically above 300°F). The amount of HCAs produced may depend on how long the meat is exposed to those high temperatures.
PAHs are also found in meat and a result of the burning of meat and its juices. These are more likely in meat that is grilled over an open flame, a hot surface, or smoked. PAHs are also in other types of smoke including coal and cigarette smoke.
Should I Stop Eating Meat?
It seems that despite the presence of HCAs and PAHs in meats the level of risk is hard to determine. Animal studies that showed the carcinogenic effect of these compounds used alarming large dosages to do so. This high level of exposure is not the same for humans, HCA and PAH levels may vary depending on the preparation of meat, it’s cooking, and for how long.
Furthermore, HCAs and PAHs must be metabolized and be bioactivated to exert their mutagenic effect. This activation happens in relation to enzymes whose quantity vary from person to person- some might be at higher risk than others. How often a person eats meat will also have an effect.
While specific guidelines on how much meat is ok in regards to carcinogens do not yet exist, the link is still there. This doesn’t mean you have to stop eating meat when you don’t want to. Rather be aware of the risk and act accordingly.
Some meat preparation methods help lower the risk of carcinogenic exposure including pre-cooking meat (in a microwave), and flipping it often when cooking at high temperatures. More importantly, eat lots of veggies!!
A Comprehensive Integrative and Functional Nutrition Consultation includes assessment and recommendations regarding toxic exposure from food, environment and internally. Talk to our staff at Santa Cruz Core to set up a series of consultations in with our Integrative and Functional Nutritionist today.