Grilled Chicken and Vegetables: A Recipe for Cancer?

grilled_chicken In January, 2010, the KFC National Council & Advertising Cooperative, the group that reps U.S. franchisees, decided to sue Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) to get control of the advertising strategy. This came in the wake of poor sales: second-quarter revenue at American KFCs (those open for a year or more) decreased 7 percent.(1)

Many franchisees have voiced disapproval over a couple KFC decisions. Last year, the company introduced grilled chicken and the slogan, “Unthink KFC.” Recently, however, sales of grilled chicken have sunk, according to Larry Starkey, owner of seven KFC franchises.

Are people beginning to “Unthink KFC” and grilled chicken?


This month, a medical non-profit’s lawsuit over a carcinogen found in grilled chicken is set to continue, after a California appeals court reversed a ruling. (2)

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), tested grilled chicken samples from several chain restaurants, including ones from McDonald’s. The organization said in court filings that the tests found the presence of a carcinogenic chemical called PhIP, which is produced through the cooking process used by the fast food chains.

So the committee filed suit, saying that the restaurants are required to post warnings under a California law which stipulates that businesses cannot expose individuals to chemicals known to cause cancer “without first giving clear and reasonable warning.”

The restaurants countered that the state rule was preempted because such signage would contradict federal efforts to guarantee that food was cooked sufficiently to prevent the spread of food-borne illness.

The restaurants all know that the grilled chicken has a cancer causing agent in them, said Neal Barnard, president of the physicians group. They ought to share with you what they know.

mcdonalds-socksMcDonald’s referred comment to the California Restaurant Association, where spokesman Daniel Conway lambasted the charges of misleading consumers. He said the levels of PhIP in grilled chicken didn’t merit concern and that a proliferation of signs like the ones demanded in the suit would do nothing more than cause consumers to ignore warnings of greater consequence. 

My biggest message is that grilled chicken is safe,” he said. “Bottom line.”

But what do the scientists say?

This year, about 562,340 Americans are expected to die of cancer – more than 1,500 people a day. (3)

While thirty percent of cancers are caused by tobacco, dietary factors also play a significant role in cancer risk. At least one-third of annual cancer deaths in the U.S. are due to dietary factors. A recent review on diet and cancer estimates that up to 80 percent of cancers of the large bowel, breast, and prostate are due to dietary factors. (4)

Estimated Percentages of Cancer Due to Selected Factors(5)
Diet 35% to 60%
Tobacco 30%
Air and Water Pollution 5%
Alcohol 3%
Radiation 3%
Medications 2%

Numerous research studies have shown that cancer is much more common in populations consuming diets rich in fatty foods, particularly meat, and much less common in countries eating diets rich in grains, vegetables, and fruits.(6)

While fruits and vegetables contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals to protect the body, by contrast, recent research shows that animal products contain potentially carcinogenic compounds which may contribute to increased cancer risk.(7)


Meat naturally contains amino acids and a protein called creatine that is found in muscle tissue. When meat is grilled, this combination of amino acids and creatine form heterocyclic amines (HCAs). A major compound of HCAs is amino-imidazo-pyridines (PhIP) which is the compound found most abundantly in cooked meats.(8)

Meat need not be well done or charred to contain HCAs. Testing has found HCAs in grilled chicken cooked for just three minutes on each side. HCAs can pose a cancer risk even when consumed in small amounts. No safe level of PhIP, linked to several forms of cancer, has been identified—it appears to increase cancer risk even at very low levels.(9)

An analysis by Cancer Project Organization has revealed that grilled chicken has more than 10 times the amount of HCAs than grilled beef; nearly all the HCAs detected were in the form of PhIP.

The table below lists the five foods containing the highest levels of HCAs

The Five Worst Foods to Grill

Food Item

HCAs: nanograms per 100 grams*

Chicken breast, skinless, boneless, grilled, well done

14,000 nanograms/100 grams5

Steak, grilled, well done

810 nanograms/100 grams6

Pork, barbecued

470 nanograms/100 grams7

Salmon, grilled with skin

166 nanograms/100 grams8

Hamburger, grilled, well done

130 nanograms/100 grams6

*100 gram portion equals about 3.5 ounces grilled

Vegetarian Foods

The Cancer Project Organization recommends plant-based foods which do not contain HCAs. Because creatine is found in muscle tissue, not in plant-based foods, vegetarian foods do not produce detectable levels of HCAs when they are grilled. These healthful grilling options include soy-based veggie burgers, vegetable kebabs, barbecued tofu, and portabella mushroom “steaks.”  These foods are also low in fat and cholesterol.

They may be low in fat and cholesterol but are they safe to eat?


To fight the boll weevil in the 1950s, U.S. cotton-growers spread a pesticide that contained arsenic. An effective killer, the pesticide was also used against the gypsy moth. Yet it had an unexpected side effect: the soil of the fields and forests where it was applied remains laced with low levels of arsenic.(10)

Arsenic can’t be broken down to harmless by-products. It stays in the soil unless rain (or irrigation water) washes it into the groundwater, or a plant, like rice — which is now farmed on the old cotton fields — takes it up into its stems, leaves and grains.

Some plants can draw arsenic and other metals into their leaves and stems at doses that would easily kill other plants. Scientists call these plants “hyperaccumulators.” Unfortunately, some food plants — particularly rice — are also very good at drawing in arsenic from the soil. In July 2008, scientists in Japan and the United Kingdom reported why: rice mistakes arsenic for silicon (which is essential).(11)

Silicon stiffens the rice stems and leaves, keeping the plants from falling over, or lodging, when their seed heads get heavy. It helps the rice plant grow stronger husks and also protects the seed against fungus.


Today poultry producers also use arsenic against parasites. They have sometimes supplemented chicken feed with roxarsone, a compound containing arsenic, to control parasites and promote weight gain. Most of this arsenic is excreted by the birds and then becomes mixed in with sawdust and other litter materials used in poultry houses. Farmers then typically use the litter as a nutrient-rich—and free—fertilizer for amending their crop soils.(12)

The use of organoarsenicals in the poultry industry, primarily roxarsone, has increased as the industry has grown. Concentrations of roxarsone normally added to feed are relatively low – between 45 and 90 g t-1. However, in areas of intensive poultry production, such as the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) Peninsula, the application of roxarsone-derived arsenic to agricultural soils can be quite acute.(13)

In 2000, approximately 620,000,000 broilers were raised on the Peninsula, resulting in an estimated annual load of arsenic to Delmarva soils of 26,000 kg from land application of poultry litter. (14)

Arsenic and Health

Arsenic is a known human carcinogen. Chronic exposure to arsenic-contaminated water is an important public health hazard around the world, including the United States, with millions exposed to drinking water with levels that far exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. (15)

Prenatal arsenic exposure in human populations has been associated with pronounced long-term health consequences.The evidence comes from studies of 32 mothers and their children in a province of Thailand that experienced heavy arsenic contamination from tin mining. Similar levels of arsenic are also found in many other regions, including the US Southwest.(16)

Leona D. Samson, Director of MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS) and the American Cancer Society Professor in the Departments of Biological Engineering and Biology at MIT said:

“We were looking to see whether we could have figured out that these babies were exposed in utero” just by using the gene expression screening on the stored blood samples, Samson says. “The answer was a resounding yes.”

The gene expression changes the group found in the exposed children are mostly associated with inflammation, which can lead to increased cancer risk. Recognizing the damaging effects of the arsenic exposure, “the government has provided alternative water sources” to the affected villages.

Arsenic contamination of the Ron Pibul drinking water is roughly the same as that known to be present in many of the western United States, suggesting that prenatal arsenic exposure may also be a problem there. (17)

It may be a good idea to warn pregnant women of the dangers of eating grilled chicken accompanied by vegetables grown in Maryland, or anywhere else that uses arsenic as fertilizer.  Bottom line.


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