Rare or Well Done?
You light the grill. You prep the meat. You cook it: Blackened and charred, well done, pink in the center, or still mooing when it hits the plate… the range of preferences is vast. But which is better for you? Or does it even matter? In the last few days, I’ve read several sources that have me wondering whether there is any safe way to cook meat.
An article in the Daily Mail, a publication from the UK, warned to not eat meat that is over-cooked. Columnist David Derbyshire reported, “In a nine year study of more than 62,000 subjects, those who liked their steak well done were found to be almost 60 percent more likely to develop cancers of the pancreas, colon, stomach and prostate.” Derbyshire was referencing a study by Dr. Kristin Anderson of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, who was investigating the connection between charred meat and pancreatic cancer. 60%? Suddenly that charred appearance of a steak on the grill doesn’t look so appetizing.
Danger in the Flames
Following news of Anderson’s study, Dr. Mercola (mercola.com) warned that anytime meat is cooked too fast or at too high a temperature, three harmful chemicals are created in or on the meat. This is true whether the meat is grilled or fried.
- Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): These form when food is grilled at high temperatures, searing the meat, creating blackened or burned areas of the muscle fibers. Those blackened grill lines, the parts that actually sit on the steel grid of your grill, or any sections of the meat that should become burned to a black color, are the most dangerous; those are the areas you should avoid, because they are linked to cancer. How bad is the cancer risk from HCAs? Eating a lot of flame-grilled meats (especially chicken) can raise your risk of pancreatic cancer from the average of 1 person in 10,000 to a shocking 1 in 50.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): When cooking on the grill, you’re bound to see flare-ups caused by fat that drips onto hot coals. The flames rise up and engulf the meat, searing the flesh. Often, this results in blackened sections where the heat is highest. Sometimes you’ll also see small billows of smoke surrounding the meat. In either case, cancer-causing PAHs are being transferred to the food you are about to ingest.
- Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): High temperatures increase the formation of AGEs in food. This happens even when the food is being sterilized or pasteurized, not just when it’s being grilled. Eating food cooked at high heat transfers AGEs to your body. The result can be higher incidences of kidney disease, heart disease, and diabetes.
There’s another problem with overcooking meat, and this is especially important if you have any digestive difficulties to begin with, according to Nancy Appleton, Ph.D. When food is cooked at too high a heat or cooked too long, your body has more trouble digesting it. This causes the food to stay in your digestive system longer, as your body works to break it down.
Your body is designed to make use of food at the cellular level, but because overcooked food doesn’t break down very well, it’s not readily available. If your body can’t make use of the food you put into it, you won’t function at an optimal level and can become ill.
The upshot is, don’t eat any meat that is burned, charred, or seared. That’s pretty hard to do when you’re cooking on a grill. Grilling is grilling because of the charring and searing. The article concluded that it’s best to eat meat that is raw or only lightly cooked. (Hey, I can do that with a Bic lighter.)
Cook Pork Thoroughly
But wait! The very next article that I read (on Wikipedia) contradicted that wisdom with the title: “Trichinosis and e-coli, the hazards of eating meat that is too raw.”
Trichinosis is caused by Trichinella species (also termed parasitic nematodes, intestinal worms, and roundworms) that initially enter the body when meat containing the Trichinella cysts (roundworm larvae) is eaten. For humans, undercooked or raw pork and pork products, such as pork sausage, has been the meat most commonly responsible for transmitting the Trichinella parasites.
These cysts, or eggs, are nasty little buggers. The enclosure breaks open inside your digestive track and the round worms become embedded in your stomach wall. First you feel stomach pains, and you experience diarrhea and vomiting. If the Trichinella parasite is discovered early, in the intestinal phase, medications like albendazole (Albenza) or mebendazole can be effective in eliminating the intestinal worms and larvae.
Eventually, the larvae enter the blood stream and settle into muscle tissue, where they feed. Once they enter the muscle invasion stage, there’s not a thing you can take for it, other than pain relievers. You’re stuck with these tiny invaders for the rest of your life. And don’t think trichinosis is a disease of the past. A research scientist friend of ours recently told us about observing slides of muscle tissue from a man who has trichinosis. He got it after eating undercooked pork at a family reunion right here in Iowa.
E. Coli Alert
Less than a year ago, U.S. media carried reports of raw spinach contaminated with E. coli and dozens of cases of E. coli-caused food poisoning from undercooked hamburger.
In a Wikipedia article on Escherichia coli (E. coli), I read, “Food poisonings caused by E. coli are usually associated with eating unwashed vegetables and meat contaminated post-slaughter. Meat has to be cooked well enough, or at a high enough temperature to kill the E. coli bacteria. O157:H7, one particularly nasty strain, is further notorious for causing serious and even life-threatening complications like hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). Severity of the illness varies considerably; it can be fatal, particularly to young children, the elderly or the immunocompromised.”
With modern methods of meat production, you never know what has happened to the meat before you bought it. An average pound of hamburger may contain meat from more than 500 different cattle. There’s no way of knowing which meat was contaminated or where it came from.
How prevalent is poisoning from E. coli? World wide, a strain of E. coli called ETEC causes more than 200 million cases of diarrhea and 380,000 deaths, mostly in children, every year. And that’s just one strain of four.
It’s important to thoroughly wash all raw meat before cooking it. And, as any experienced cook will tell you, it’s also necessary to wash all surfaces that came into contact with the raw meat. That’s because E.coli can be transmitted to other foods that touch a cutting board the meat sat on or a knife used to cut the meat. Finally, make sure to cook the meat hot enough and thoroughly enough to kill any E-coli bacteria on it.
These guidelines printed in the New York Times in 1996 are still used by the Department of Agriculture today:
- Wash hands, utensils and work surfaces that touch raw meat and poultry before and after handling the food, using hot soapy water.
- Do not allow raw meat or chicken to sit at room temperature for more than 30 minutes; refrigerate.
- To prevent problems, cook food thoroughly.
- Cook both beef and pork to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees, so that it is slightly pink. The fleshy parts of poultry should reach 180 degrees.
Weighing the Options
So what’s the right thing to do? Do you want to cook those chops or that steak till it’s well done, or eat it rare? Do you want to get cancer of the pancreas, colon, stomach or prostate? Or do you prefer to take your chances with the possibility of tiny worms burrowing into your muscle tissue, or getting sick from E-coli and possibly dying? For some people, this is a hard decision. But not for me.
That veggie burger’s looking better all the time. And pass the potato salad.
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