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Grilled or Fried Meats May Increase Risk of Breast Cancer

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WebMD Health News

April 3, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Just in time for barbecue season, here's another warning about grilling out: Grilled, well-done meats produce high levels of a substance that may increase the risk of breast cancer. And forget about reducing the risk by ordering takeout from the local chicken franchise, because one study says that frying and grilling are equally risky.

Rashmi Sinha, PhD, says that cooking meats, and for that matter chicken and fish, for long periods at high temperatures may double the risk of breast cancer compared to the risk for women who either skip the meat or prefer it rare. Sinha, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, says there are two factors associated with increased risk: cooking at high temperatures either by grilling or frying and the doneness of the meat. The meats studied were steak, hamburgers, and bacon.

Sinha says that when meats are cooked at high temperatures, it causes a reaction between the protein and a chemical found in meat. They come together to form a new compound that is a suspect in breast cancer.

Sinha and her colleagues carefully questioned 273 breast cancer patients and 657 healthy women about their meat consumption, the preparation of meat, and the doneness. "When I say high temperatures, I'm talking about ... the kind of temperature you get when you are cooking meat over an open fire and the flames leap up," she says. The longer the meat is cooked, she says, the more of this compound is produced.

She says there are ways to reduce the risks associated with well-done meats. She advises "more stewing or braising of meats, or cooking at lower temperatures." For example, she says, "When I cook hamburgers for the kids, I put them in a pan with some water and cover the pan." She says that diehard grill enthusiasts can lower their risk by first microwaving or braising the meats to cut down on grill time.

Sinha discussed her study here at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting. The presentation dealt with possible links between meat and breast cancer. At the same conference, Kala Visvanathan, MD, a research fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, said that some women have a genetic predisposition that allows them to rapidly break down these suspicious compounds. This rapid metabolizing may actually increase the cancer risk associated with these compounds, she says. About 45% of the population have this rapid metabolizing gene.

Also at higher risk are women who have low activity from a gene that helps counteract cancer-causing agents. Visvanathan bases her findings on data collected in 1995 from 88 women with breast cancer and 92 age-matched healthy controls.

John D. Potter, MD, PhD, says the new studies suggest again that it may be best to avoid meats "that are charred or blackened." Potter, who was not involved in either study, tells WebMD that even with the new studies, it is still too soon to issue any hard guidelines about risks associated with charred meats. Potter is director of the cancer prevention education program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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