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Why roasted meat could cause cancer

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Cases of various forms of cancer, the deadly disease seen by many as death sentence, have been on the rise. Although experts have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause or causes of cancer, some believe that diet could be playing a very important role in cancer formation.

Binta Iliyasu
Binta Iliyasu

Only recently, an article in one of the national dailies warned people against consuming suya, a Nigerian shish kebab as according to the article, it could cause cancer. Interestingly the meat is not the problem but the method of cooking. One of the byproducts of roasting meat is Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) which arises as a result of incomplete combustion or burning of organic items such as gasoline, wood and cigarettes.

BaP is said to produce serious cytotoxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic effects in tissues and organs in both animals and humans, so the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), listed it as a Group 1 carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer.)

In this chat with Mrs Binta Iliyasu, a Principal Research Officer at the Nigerian Institute for Trypanosomiasis Research (NITR) in Vom, Plateau State, and a 2014 African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) Fellow, speaks on her research with Prof.  G. H. Ogbadu on roasted chicken and the link with cancer. She advises the public to use alternative methods of food preservation and preparation. Excerpts:

According to Iliyasu, interest in this research was “motivated by the high incidence of carcinoma of the alimentary tract in other countries where smoked foods are consumed in large amounts. The prevalence of gastro intestinal carcinoma among Nigerians as against other forms of cancer suggest a dietary association which is not far-fetched considering that the known chemical carcinogenic contaminants of Nigerian foods have the liver as their primary target organ of attack followed by the intestine.”

So they decided to carry out analysis of roasted chicken samples from Samaru and Tudun Wada in Zaria, Kaduna State and Malumfashi, Katsina State and then estimated the  Benzo(a)pyrene levels as earlier studies have documented links between Benzo[a]pyrene and cancers

“Cancer is not a disease restricted to the industrialised world. Evidence now shows it to be as much a problem also in less developed and less industrialised nations like Nigeria.
“Nigeria is ranked among countries with high incidence of different types of cancer including cancer of the liver  (hepatic cancer).”

Materials and methods:
“Roasted chicken samples were obtained from three different localities (Samaru and Tudun Wada in Zaria and Malumfashi, Katsina State) and the Benzo(a)pyrene level in each sample was determined. ”

At the end of the research, she discovered that there arehigher levels of Benzo(a)pyrene recorded in Malumfashi sample than the others.
“This is believed to be due to the prevalence of more of the factors that raise the level of Benzo(a)pyrene formation during smoking.

She enumerated the factors to include: proximity to heat source; length of period of smoking; whether or not the melted fat and juice which oozed out of the chicken while roasting was allowed to fall into the heat source; smoking temperature and fat content of the chicken.

“Generation of a lot of smoke, coupled with high fat content and longer period of roasting could have been the possible contributing factors to the higher levels of Benzo(a)pyrene observed in the roasted chicken sample from Malumfashi,” she said.

Iliyasu recommended that restraint should be exercised  while consuming smoked food products such as roasted chicken.
“Other means of preservation of meat and fish such as massive refrigeration in cold houses,  should be explored rather than roasting so as to reduce PAH contamination.

“People involved in the smoking/roasting of fish and meat especially for retail, should take adequate control of contamination by reducing the occurrence of the factors that affect Benzo(a)pyrene formation during smoking,” she advised.

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