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Carcinogens in Roasted Chicken?

Our bodies are less efficient at detoxifying heterocyclic amines—carcinogens formed from cooked muscle tissue—than once believed.

November 13, 2009 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited



That’s why you have to cook the crap out of them—literally. But seventy years ago this month a Swedish researcher first reported that feeding mice roasted horse muscles caused cancer. This “cancer producing substance” has since been identified. Heterocyclic amines are “the carcinogenic chemicals formed from the cooking of muscles…such as beef, pork, [poultry], and fish” created when the building blocks of muscles react to high heat—roasting, frying, grilling, barbequeing.
Seventeen different such carcinogens have so far been discovered in cooked meats, and it goes on to explain how people eating meat well-done appear to have higher cancer risk than those eating meat cooked rare. So we’re kind of damned if we do and damned if we don’t, because, you know, we’re not supposed to eat meat rare any more because of the risk of food poisoning. So it’s like we can take our pick—cancer or E coli.
The reason we’re so concerned these days about these cooked meat carcinogens is that last year we learned that humans are much more susceptible than we thought. The prior research was done on rats, and rodents have to this uncanny ability to detoxify 99% of the heterocyclic amines we stuff down their throats. But last year we discovered that the human liver can only detoxify 50% of the carcinogens we get from eating cooked chicken, for example. So instead of 1% getting into our system—based on rat studies—we now know 50% gets into our bloodstream, so now we’re 50 times more concerned.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by veganmontreal.

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Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. And check out the prequel to this video, "Fecal Residues on Chicken." Also, there are 1,449 other subjects covered in the rest of my videos--please feel free to explore them as well!

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts:  Eating Green to Prevent CancerEstrogenic Chemicals in Meat, and Avoid Cooked Meat Carcinogens

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. And check out the prequel to this video, “Fecal Residues on Chicken.” Also, there are 1,449 other subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them as well!

  • dplatter

    Dr. Greger, thanks for all the fantastic information. I’m in AU, and complained earlier this week to the local Cancer Council about their dietary suggestions that include meat. Would you be at all able to respond to any of their “key messages”:

    They seem to try awfully hard to find a way recommend meat, and I’d be grateful for any references to peer reviewed research, especially larger scale studies. I’m no scientist. :)


    • The term ‘meat’ encompasses a variety of foods, including unprocessed red meat (beef, veal, pork
    and lamb), processed meat, poultry and fish. Processed meat differs from unprocessed red meat
    in that it may be cured with the addition of preservatives and/or other additives.
    • The relationship between meat consumption and the risk of cancer, especially colorectal cancer,
    has been controversial. The consumption of red meat and processed meat appears to be
    convincingly associated with a modest increased risk of colorectal cancer.
    • There is limited suggestive evidence that red meat may be associated with an increased risk of
    oesophageal, lung, pancreatic and endometrial cancer, and processed meat with oesophageal,
    lung, stomach and prostate cancer.
    • There does not appear to be a strong association between red meat or processed meat and the
    risk of other cancers.
    • There is insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions on poultry intake and cancer risk.
    • For fish consumption, there is limited but suggestive evidence that it may be linked to a reduced
    risk of breast, colorectal and prostate cancer.
    • Despite the concerns about meat and cancer, Cancer Council recognises that lean red meat is an
    important contributor to dietary iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein in the Australian diet.
    • Cancer Council recommends people consume moderate amounts of unprocessed lean red meat.
    A moderate amount of meat is 65-100g of cooked red meat, 3-4 times a week

    • Toxins

      Debates are always fun. Here is what you should do, do a search on for “meat” or “cancer”, then go to every relevant video. Pull up the sources cited box and go to each study. Write to them a lengthy email quoting and explaining each study you listed with hyperlinks in an organized manner. There is a huge body of knowledge at your disposal! I have done with with dairy consumption and the consumption of oils, it is a really solid tactic.

  • dplatter

    Toxins, thanks for the comment. Who have you been debating?

    I’ve been trying follow your suggestion but I’m having trouble finding a real smoking gun. The website talk so much about the latest research, but I need something that’s shows conclusively that meet overall causes cancer in humans. but I’m keeping up my research and also going through some books that I have.

    • Toxins

      i debate nutritionist now and again. Well, for individual meat for example, cite arachadonic acid in chicken, cite the contaminants in fish, and cite the correlation with meat and degenerative diseases.

      You wont find a study that concludes “Meat causes cancer”. There will be reactions or compounds found in meat that cause these diseases.

  • dplatter

    Thanks, Toxins.

  • plantbaseforever

    I cant believe how much chicken I was eating before I was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 months ago. I thought like many others chicken was the healthy protein. I have sinced been on a plant base diet, no chemo no radiation, and cancers cell either shrunk or gone. I have done this all on my own by doing research, such as watching all of Dr Greger’s videos, going to seminars and corresponding with others who are on the same jouney as I am. But it saddens me to watch people all around, like supermarkets, destroying their health by whats in their shopping carts. Does it have to be getting a disease to wake people up, like in my case?

  • Teresa Guzmán M.

    Hi, so what? Is really bad to eat meat/chicken/fish or we just have smaller portions, and organic chicken? Do you suggest to become vegetarian?

  • bob

    It’s been hard for me to give up meat, but this type of info helps these early steps I’m taking. I find the longer I go with less meat, the harsher the reaction seems to eating the next bite. Unlike my more usual beans and veggies meals, with meat after the initial euphoria, I then get sleepy, then don’t sleep as well, get acid reflux, breathing is harder during the night. And those are benign compared to the risks.