By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to a friend who passed away from pancreatic cancer. An elegant, vibrant man, fond of a well-tailored suit and books, Zach (not his real name) was more startled than anyone when he was told a year ago that he had pancreatic cancer, leaving him with probably less than a year to live.
Once again, I found myself wondering, "why is it that so many people are getting pancreatic cancer?". My awareness of how deadly pancreatic cancer is began, weirdly enough, when then President Jimmy Carter revealed that he had lost many of his family members to the deadly disease. Fewer than 5% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are alive 5 years later, according to the American Cancer Society.
Scientists have long known that there is a strong connection between the amount of red meat you consume and your chances of getting pancreatic cancer.
Now comes the news that, it's not only the red meat that matters. How you cook the meat you eat is a large factor in determining your risk for cancer.
Frying, Barbecuing and Grilling Meat Creates Powerful Carcinogens
Pancreatic cancer has certain patterns that have intrigued scientists for years. It affects all races but some more than others. The Maori of New Zealand have the world's highest rates of pancreatic cancer, while people who live in Nigeria and India have the lowest incidences, according to a 2008 study from scientists at Bart's and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Yet, Black Americans and Hawaiians have markedly high rates of pancreatic cancer as do Jewish Americans, according to the same report.
What gives? Why do certain segments of the population and certain regions of the country see more cases of pancreatic cancer than others?
What was once a complete puzzle is now becoming clearer. New studies have found that how you cook meat is a highly predictive factor in whether you develop pancreatic cancer.
Almost all Americans enjoy a good barbecue. I now I do. But, for some Americans, having a barbecue is much more a central part of the culture. The same is true among Hawaiians, for whom the "luau" of grilled pig over an open fire is a part of tradition.
Frying is also a feature of American cooking. We fry bacon, we fry chicken, we fry burgers.
Here is what all that frying, grilling and barbecuing does to meat.
When meat is heated up to above 300 degrees Fahrenheit, two special compounds are released which actually have the ability to change your genes.
One of these compounds is heterocyclic amines, also known as "HCA's". The other compound is called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's).
Both these compounds are "mutagenic", meaning they can change you genetically.
That special, powerful ability means that these compounds may alone, or in combination with other chemicals, have the ability to cause a cell in your body to forget how to die. That is the mark of cancer ---cells first forget how to die, then they continue to grow and grow form a mass, a tumor, then the tumor continues to grow until it invades other body systems, causing organ failure and ,ultimately, death.
When you grill meat, the juices from the meat hit the flames. PAH compounds are formed by the interaction of the juices from the meat and the open flame. These compounds then stick to the meat before you remove the meat from the grill.
Thus, one way to cut down on PAH compounds is to put hamburgers and meat on aluminum sop that no meat ever comes directly in contact with the flames. That may --- and we say "may" because no studies have been done to show this technique actually works --- cut down on the PAH compounds.
But there is no known method for cutting down on the HCA compounds if you fry, grill or barbecue your meat. These compounds are formed when the amino acids in the protein of the meat react with sugar and creatines at high temperatures.
Thus, the only way to avoid creating HCA compounds is to cook on low heat. Do you like your burgers well done? If so, you are at the highest risk for pancreatic cancer.
Most of the HCA's are found in the charred meat. Therefore, you should never, even eat charred or "blackened" meat or fish.
Consider Marinating Your Meat to Reduce Mutagens
The same HCA and PAH mutagens which cause pancreatic cancer have been implicated in causing prostate cancer.
Studies on prostate cancer and mutagens have found that HCA and PAH mutagens which cause pancreatic cancer can be reduced by marinating meat before grilling or frying, according to a 2010 study led by Dr. Stella Koutros of the National Institutes of Health and Dr. Amanda Cross of the Yale School of Medicine .
Marinate your meat in red wine, or consider an olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette.
And, whatever you choose for a marinade, remember to keep the heat down. Your pancreas will thank you for it.