Could braais cause cancer?

South Africans are generally fond of eating meat that is braaied over a fire and there is no doubt that the majority will have spent Heritage Day around a fire braaiing various cuts of meat, sausages and other assorted foods.

Thanks to the efforts of an enthusiastic man called Jan Scannell, better known as "Jan Braai", it has even been suggested that our Heritage Day be renamed to National Braai Day.

I am sure, though, that some of you may wonder whether this massive intake of partially charred meat may perhaps be detrimental to our health, particularly in regard to cancer.

As I have just finished collaborating on a book entitled Red Meat In Nutrition & Health, which among many other aspects, also addresses the purported link between the intake of red meat and various types of cancer, I thought it a good opportunity to mention what the current, international findings are about red meat, methods of cooking meat and cancer.

Cancer is probably one of the most feared diseases and it is responsible for more deaths worldwide each year than Aids, TB and malaria combined (Schönfeldt & Hall, 2012). In South Africa, one in six men have a lifetime risk of developing cancer, particularly prostate, lung, oesophageal and colorectal cancers. In women, one in eight have a lifetime risk of developing cancer, particularly of the breast, cervix and colon.

Red meat and particularly meat that has been cooked over an open fire, has for a long time been regarded as one of many cancer causative factors. However, if we look at the scientific evidence that is currently available, then it appears that this association is not as strong as was previously believed.

Cancer, environmental and lifestyle factors

Given the high incidence of cancer globally, it is understandable that a great many studies have been conducted to investigate the link between cancer and environmental and lifestyle factors, such as dietary habits, and the probability of developing cancer. Because researchers have observed that populations migrating from one country to another, tend to develop different types of cancer despite the fact that the populations in question are genetically identical, it has been suggested that food intake or dietary habits and other lifestyle patterns can be manipulated so that cancer can be prevented.

Schönfeldt and Hall (2012), point out that it must be kept in mind that the association between any dietary factor such as meat intake and cancer is a very complex one and that a variety of other factors always play a role (e.g. genetic makeup, ageing, use of tobacco, exposure to sunlight and ionising radiation, certain chemicals, viruses and bacteria, alcohol intake, unbalanced diets, lack of physical activity, and overweight) and that we cannot look at only one factor in isolation.

Historical progression

In 1997 the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) concluded that red meat probably increases the risk of cancer and that processed meat (polony, sausages, cold meats, etc) and cooking meat at high temperatures (such as over the fire) possibly increases the risk of cancer.

In 2007, the WCRF went further and reached the conclusion that both red and processed meat convincingly increase the risk for colorectal cancer (Schönfeldt & Hall, 2012).

However, in 2010 Alexander and a team of researchers produced a technical summary of the evidence on red meat and processed meat consumption and cancer obtained from thousands of epidemiological studies which led them to conclude that: "The totality of the available scientific evidence is not supportive of an independent association between red meat or processed meat and cancer."

What does this mean?

Does this mean we can eat as much red meat or processed meat as we like? No, what the researchers are saying is that because so many different factors all contribute towards the risk that any given group or individual will develop cancer, one cannot take one isolated factor (such as meat) and determine that it, and it alone, is responsible for a certain type of cancer.

In Red Meat In Nutrition & Health, Dr Carl Albrecht, Head of Research at Cansa, who acted as one of the consultant experts for the publication, states that the main message propagated by Cansa regarding diet and cancer prevention, is that South Africans are encouraged to "eat and drink moderately using a balanced and varied diet".

Dr Albrecht emphasises that how you cook your meat is important. Red meat cooked over an open fire can produce so-called pyrolysis products including PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], which have been linked to prostate, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.” Dr Albrecht agrees that moderate consumption of red meat is not problematic, but "the real problem is what we do to this meat before eating it" (Schönfeldt & Hall, 2012).

So while moderate consumption of red meat is not regarded as a unique risk factor for cancer, the way we cook meat can turn a healthy food into a potential source of carcinogens. Having the odd braai once in a while is probably not harmful, but if you and your family indulge in braais every week and often more than once a week, then you are exposing yourself and your loved ones to the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including cancer of the prostate, colon, and pancreas.

For the sake of our long-term health as a nation, we can, therefore, conclude that we should perhaps continue to honour Heritage Day, rather than National Braai Day!

(Photo of steak from Shutterstock)


Schönfeldt HC, Hall N, 2012. Red Meat in Nutrition & Health. Chapter 6: Red Meat & Cancer. Published by: The Institute of Food, Nutrition & Well-being, University of Pretoria, Pretoria

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