Are you craving a hot, charred and juicy chicken breast fresh off an outdoor grill? How about now? I LOVE charred food. It's more than just savory. Umami. So one of my biggest consternations from the last few years was the "firestorm" caused by this study: Pancreatic Cancer Risk: Associations with Meat-Derived Carcinogen Intake in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial (PLCO) Cohort. Suddenly magazines and news outlets the world over warned against the dangers of enjoying a century's old staple of the human diet, as if it carried a graver health cost than countless industrial contaminants we are constantly exposed to. I didn't believe it in my gut. There's something about a dark, crispy chicken breast that just makes me feel so good inside.
Only for the last century or so have we been dying from cancer at the rates we do, yet ever since we learned how to cook as a species (between 200,000 to 1 million years ago), we have been eating charred food. Before the 1900's food was always cooked with open flames, fired by wood or charcoal. The fact that we cook food is the reason we are so advanced as a species. Heat breaks down substances into their elemental parts, allowing easier and greater absorption of higher quantity of nutrients, while also destroying compounds which are actually toxic like goitrogens and anti-nutrients. There is literally a higher quantity of more harmful chemicals on your grocery store receipt than are in charred food.
This study is a lesson in how unscrupulous researchers misuse and misinterpret evidence and why it's important for the general population to understand the context of a study when using it to spread information. This study in particular is a kind which is notoriously unreliable for determining cause and effect. It is literally some people at a college interviewing other people and asking if they like burnt food. Not once did they confirm by observation or in clinical settings that these people actually ate burnt food, how much of it they did or didn't eat, or exactly how burnt each meal was. They did not take blood or tissue samples, or run any kind of lab. This kind of study is intended to find a correlation for hypotheses for researchers to design more investigative studies. The fact that their observations were merely correlative, which is not the same as causative, was never mentioned by the researchers or by news outlets trying to drive attention to their articles. There is absolutely no evidence from this or any study that charred food has ANY association with ANY type of cancer, whatsoever. In fact, it could be argued from the results of their study that people likely to develop prostate cancer naturally crave charred food because perhaps it has some therapeutic action. This would be a more plausible conclusion since we as a species often crave foods which alleviate suffering. This study is tantamount to fraud, as are most studies where people draw erroneous conclusions from sets of data they have manufactured themselves. There are thousands and thousands of studies like this—where people take one set of data and correlate it with something, because correlations exist all around us.
The reason charred food is good for you is because the chemical reaction from the heat releases the molecular bonds of the various proteins and sugars and breaks them down into the basic components—something our digest system now does not have to do. It also evaporates most of the water content, so your body doesn't have to sort through the water too. It takes tremendous heat to separate the chemical bonds that hold food together. Energy can never be destroyed, it just changes form, so it takes our bodies that same amount of energy to do the work that can be done for us by fire. This is the reason we are the species we are today—because of fire and it's effect on food. Charring food breaks it down into it's most basic amino acids and elements, allowing them to be absorbed without much effort. That same reason is why it's so damn tasty—it is a signal from the tongue that what we are putting into our bodies is good for us.
Much of the hoopla around charred food is centered on some of the chemicals formed during cooking, chiefly acrylamide. It is true when you pump rats with high levels of this compound intravenously they develop cancer. But that is true of many chemicals in our diet. Soy lecithin is in nearly every candy and chocolate product in your grocery store (even Whole Foods—read labels), which people eat with reckless abandon yet it causes more cancer than acrylamide. The funny thing about acrylamide—no one is going to be injecting it into your blood stream, and it just happens to break down in stomach acid. Soy lecithin does not.
It is good to avoid cancer causing compounds, but coming into contact with carcinogens does not necessarily mean you'll get cancer, and it is pretty much impossible to avoid all carcinogens even if you try very hard to. Even oxygen can cause cancer and we breathe it every moment that we are alive. The sun can cause cancer yet we cannot live without it's light directly on our skin. Selectively choosing to ignore some sources of carcinogens (grocery store receipts) while imposing sanctimonious demonization of something we've been eating for most of our history on this planet is not the way to avoid cancer. Cancer is merely the chronic interruption of normal cellular respiration by substances which the body normally controls. Any time a group of cells become unable to generate energy through normal oxidative metabolism, they resort to backup modes of energy generation. When certain dietary environments chronically restrict cells to those backup modes it is then that cancer can form and grow. Many elements can cause this to happen but our cells have ways of dealing with those. The UV rays of the sun cause this condition, but our bodies have developed defense mechanisms to deal with that. This is why we don't die when we walk out into the daylight. For a similar reason it's okay to eat charred meat with cancer causing chemicals—we've been doing it for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Those small amounts of chemicals our bodies come into contact with every day. What causes cancer is when other elements, like radiation, pharmaceuticals, endocrine disrupters, a poor diet, alcohol, fasting, foods inappropriate for a human primate—these things interrupt our bodies processes for dealing with harmful substances. To actively prevent cancer it is important to keep your cellular metabolism working in top condition. This enables the body's detoxification processes to stay working the way they're supposed to, to prevent cancer. Eating plenty of sugar, protein, and vitamins and minerals plus some other things like Aspirin, Vitamin C, and B Vitamins can help maintain a robust metabolism. But either way, if you are going to get cancer it's not the fault of your delicious grilled dinner. If you have cancer, you can read my article on Cancer and my experience dealing with it personally.