A large US study involving over 60,000 participants found that a preference for meat cooked to a high temperature where it is burned or charred, for instance through frying, grilling and barbecuing, was linked to an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

The study was the work of Dr Kristin Anderson, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis, and colleagues, and was presented at the 100th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, which is taking place this week from April 18 to 22 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

“My research has been focused on pancreatic cancer for some time, and we want to identify ways to prevent this cancer because treatments are very limited and the cancer is often rapidly fatal,” said Anderson.

Cooking meat at such a high temperature that it burns or chars (as in a “well done” steak) is known to produce carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals, which don’t form when the meat is baked or stewed, said the researchers.

For the prospective study, Anderson and colleagues examined survey data on 62,581 participants that took part in the PLCO (Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian) Multi-center Screening Trial. The participants completed questions about their meat intake, how they preferred it to be cooked, and how “well done” they liked it to be.

Over the 9 years of the study, 208 of the participants were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In analysing links between pancreatic cancer incidence and how participants liked their meat to be cooked, the researchers found that preferences for high temperature cooked meat were generally linked to increased risk.

For instance, participants who liked their steak very well done were nearly 60 per cent more likely to get pancreatic cancer as participants who liked it less well done or did not eat it at all.

And those participants who had the highest estimated intake of carcinogens from high temperature cooked meat had a 70 per cent higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer as those with the lowest intake.

While the study doesn’t prove for certain that the increased risk is tied directly to the carcinogens found in burned meat, Anderson said that people who enjoy either fried or barbecued meat should turn down the heat or cut off the burned bits before eating it.

The meat should be cooked sufficiently to kill the bacteria without excess charring, she said, explaining that it was also possible to reduce the precursors of the cancer causing compounds by microwaving the meat for a few minutes and pouring off the juices before putting it to grill.

According to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the US, where there are about 37,500 new cases every year and over 34,000 deaths. In Europe there are about 60,000 new cases a year.

Because diagnosis rarely occurs during the early stages (symptoms are often rarely felt or vague), survival rate is poor compared to other cancers, with only about 5 per cent of patients still living 5 years after diagnosis, and unfortunately, overall pancreatic cancer incidence and rates of death have not changed much in the last thirty years.

The disease strikes more men than women, more smokers than non-smokers, and the risk goes up with age and other factors, such as obesity and gum disease.

Sources: American Association for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, MNT archives.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD