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Grill season. Red meat increases disease risk

Do you often participate with friends in the grill season? Are you wondering if red meat increases the risk of disease? Cancer, rheumatism and other chronic inflammatory diseases? Does it depend on the quality, type and method of preparation?
Discover the answers provided by Prof. Dr. Werner Seebauer in this article.

Prof. Dr. Werner Seebauer is, Dean of Studies – Association of German Preventologists, Head of Preventive Medicine Department of Institute of Transcultural Health Sciences (European University Viadrina) and Head of Preventive Medicine – NESA (The New European Surgical Academy). Since 2000, prof. dr. Werner Seebauer worked only in preventive medicine, after ten years spent at the Frankfurt University Hospital. He is also involved in the medical professionals training for nutrition and prevention.

MediHelp International, together with LAMP Insurance, and in collaboration with NESA has created the NESAcard based on the wish to offer access to high standards medical services to patients all over Europe. This way, MediHelp contributes to the medical science development and is actively involved in the international social responsibility advocacy.


While there are always media reports about the discovery (meta-analyses from study data) that red meat increases cancer risks (especially colon cancer), this is a well-known fact for many years and one has to make precise distinctions. The dose (amount and frequency of use) as well as the form of preparation always plays a decisive role.

It should also be emphasized that the human organism has defense and repair systems that can compensate the “pollutants” within certain limits. These systems are in turn dependent on the total food intake and especially the adequate supply of phytochemicals from our vegetarian food sources. To explain it simply: the more healthy food (legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, spices and kitchen herbs) we consume, the better “less healthy” food ingredients can be compensated.

So, the key question is to keep the consumption of red meat in special forms of preparation within certain limits and to eat more healthy veggies.

The risk is higher for sausage products; and, above all, for the roasted, grilled or fried over-salted or cured meats, which pose a greater risk.
Better is the lean meat of poultry and fish. Fish is also preferable because the omega-3 fatty acids (especially EPA and DHA) have a positive effect. Consumption of fish reduced the risk of colorectal cancer (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1997 – p906).

Red meat contains protein structures against which the human organism forms antibodies and thus activates the immune system. Poultry meat and fish do not contain these protein structures. Activation of the immune system does not necessarily require disease-triggering processes, but in addition to other defense reactions, there is more potential for inflammatory responses and uncompensated oxidative stress (i.e. malignant cell degeneration or damage to cells and gene structures that the organism needs to repair).

The device is: less red meat, not too roasted or fried and less processed meat (sausage etc.).


Overall, for risk reduction it is the recommendation to consume less meat: an adult should not eat more than 40 to about 90 grams of meat per day (the German Society of nutrition recommends a maximum of 300 to 600g per week).

That’s about per week:

  • 3 ½ meat burgers (130g / piece);
  • or 3 fried sausages (150g / piece);
  • or 4 -5 portions of Bolognese meat sauce with spaghetti (100g / portion);
  • or 2-3 Wiener Schnitzel (200g / piece);
  • or 2-3 pieces of rump steak (200g / piece);
  • or 3-4 döner kebab (100-150g / portion).

In addition, it is important to reduce the animal fats that form arachnidonic acid and can increase inflammatory processes.


Red meat is all meat except poultry and fish.

White meat of pork is also considered red meat
Red meat means not only the visibly distinctively red meat. It is also the relatively bright pork. When processing (roasting), one often no longer recognizes the type of meat exactly.

Summary: higher risk for red meat of cow, steer, pork, veal, sheep, lamb and goat. Especially cured is meat is riskier: such as pork sausage, ham, bacon, sausages, “Kassler” meat and Vienna sausages.
On the other hand, it is quite possible to grill lean meat, especially low-fat poultry meat.


When heated – and especially when searing – carcinogenic (cancer-promoting) substances can form
Not all reasons for the risks of red and processed meat are well known. It is probably not just the protein structure and the type of fats. The iron content, the formation of carcinogenic amino and nitrous compounds (ATNCs apparent total N-nitrous compounds) may also play a role. The clearest evidence for risk is related to the method of cooking.

Red meat could increase the oxidative stress via the increased iron content with added cell damage and cell degeneration on the intestinal mucosa. Other negative factors could be the increased use of cattle fattening hormones and genetically modified feed.

Many data on the studies came from the US, where relatively large amounts of grilled beef are consumed. In the context of the preparation type, especially in case of grilling with the excessive searing or burning of fats, more carcinogens are formed (potentially cancer-promoting substances – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs] benzopyrene, heterocyclic aromatic amines [HAAs] and other carcinogenic and mutagenic substances). However, these can occur in all types of meat! The highest concentrations are registered when a strong browning or even charring occurs (even with white meat).

The potentially carcinogenic PAHs are generally produced in foods by preparation involving heating or smoking; e.g. when grilling, roasting and baking, while drying in direct contact with open flame or flue gases.
When grilling, this happens especially when fat or meat juice drips into the charcoal and the meat is smoked. A bluish smoke contaminates the food. Even inhaling this smoke increases your body’s exposure to these pollutants. You also should not glaze the grilled meat with beer as it can also cause PAHs.

The marinade, as well should not drip into the embers. Therefore, the marinade should be used with the appropriate grill system – in barbecue bowls, or with vertical grill systems. The heat source should be well-glowing and not-smoking; and the meat should be turned often or steadily (rotating is best). Both beer and suitable marinades can help on other conditions (see below).

In the muscle meat of fish PAHs can also penetrate, but they are rapidly degraded and cannot accumulate so much.

When charcoal grilling, 10-times the amount of PAHs (benzopyrenes) is produced in the outer layer of the grilled food, and as much as 200-times more when roasted over a wood fire.
It must be emphasized that certain multifactorial causal complexes are risk-increasing, because in some South American countries, where also a lot of red and grilled meat is consumed, the increase in colorectal cancer risk could not be determined to the same extent.


Marinating the meat before grilling proves to be very favorable under certain conditions. The marinade should not drip into the embers and cause smoke (see topic above).

When meat has been marinated with herbs, oils and essences (mustard, horseradish, etc.), significantly fewer pollutants were detected as a result of grilling. Here the phytochemicals (“secondary plant substances”) from the marinade compensate very probably (and thus prove to be helpful for the detoxification). For example, a marinade of olive oil (from first cold pressing – extra virgin), vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice reduced the heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs) by up to 99%; and spice combinations even in low doses with garlic, sage, thyme and oregano significantly reduced these pollutants. Even low concentrations of mustard or soy condiment show a significant reduction in the harmful effects of PAHs. Among other things, garlic is very effective against carcinogenic nitrosamines. Black beer (Ale) was also able to lower the pollutant concentration.

In a study at the university in Honolulu, Hawaii, where various home-made marinades (Teriaki marinade or Turmeric-Garlic marinade) and commercial barbecue sauces were tested on beef steaks to observe the pollutant development during grilling, the results showed in the self-made marinades a up to 67% lower pollutant production (HAAs) compared to commercial barbecue sauces (honey barbecue sauce).

Study Sources:
Salmon CP, Knize MG, et al.: Effects of marinating on heterocyclic amine carcinogen formation in grilled chicken. Food Chem Toxicol, 1997 May;35(5):433-41.
Nerurkar PV, Le Marchand L, Cooney RV: Effects of marinating with Asian marinades or western barbecue sauce on PhIP and MeIQx formation in barbecued beef. Nutr Cancer. 1999;34(2):147-52.

Certain rules should be followed when grilling to ensure healthy eating:

  1. Do not fry or roast the meat too hot. The harmful substances are mainly produced at temperatures of 130 degrees Celsius and above.
  2. Use an electric or gas grill if possible. For charcoal, let it soak well before the meat comes on the grill, because smoke and an open fire (flames) can contain many pollutants (PAHs), transferring them onto the meat.
  3. Charcoal or charcoal briquettes are to be preferred. The burning of paper, resinous wood or pine cones causes more pollutants (PAHs). Lacquered or glazed wood or wood from furniture and other origins should never be used for barbecuing.
  4. Use lean or only slightly fat-containing meat and marinate it for 24 hours in advance in home-made marinades (made from precious oils, herbs and spices). If you have a most common grill, dab off the marinade from meat well before grilling.
    If the meat is placed in a dish or foil on the grill, or if the marinade does not drip into the embers (using a vertical grill), you can leave more marinade on it. But beware: salt and lemon juice should not be on the aluminum tray or aluminum foil as they can dissolve metals. Stainless steel bowls would be better.
    It is best to make the marinade yourself because you can prepare it without apprehensive additives and you can also assess better the quality of meat and fish. Often, commercial barbecued sauces did not show the mentioned defensive effects compared to self-made marinades with oil and herbs, garlic and other Spices. Some additives can themselves be harmful.
  5. Highly recommended is a grill with side fire exhausts (vertical grills) or incandescent rods at the side. Fat can not drip into the embers.
  6. Never char your grill food.
  7. You should cut off burnt pieces generously, because they contain very high amounts of toxins (HAAs).
  8. If you do not have a vertical grill, use a grill bowl to prevent fat or marinade from dripping into the embers.
  9. Attach the grill grate up (or away from the vertical grill) so that the fire flames cannot touch the food being grilled.
  10. Avoid cured meats such as pork chops, bacon, “Leberkäse”, “Wieners” (sausages), generally sausages.
  11. Recommended is non-cured fish and poultry meat (especially chicken breast), as opposed to the likes of beefsteak, high rib, neck chops, ground meat. If you grill sausages, then take white and yellow sausages but generally use rather little sausage amounts or use them.
  12. Steaming is healthier than barbecuing! This also concerns vegetables.
  13. Eat the meat with plenty of vegetables and salad, as well as spicy pastes (mustard, horseradish, etc.) – you should generally have a diet that is high in phytochemicals.


This is followed by another newsletter.
Pickled meat products (sausage or “Kassler” meat) contain nitrite pickling salt, which produces nitrosamines when exposed to heat, which can cause gastric and esophageal cancers.

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