Consumption of roasted meat (locally known as nyama choma) is prevalent in our restaurants and bars (choma base).
High consumption is seen during the weekend when people are out having a good time usually catching up with the weekend fixtures. Men tend to be the main consumers and usually accompany the meat with alcohol.
According to the WHO, roasting done at high temperatures should be a cause for concern as it may increase the risk of some cancers.
However, it’s not just the cooking method that’s behind this heightened risk. High intake of red meat, and in particular processed meats, are also cited as probable risk factors.
Does Red Meat Increase the Risk of Cancer?
According to various studies reviewed by the WHO, the risk for colorectal cancer is more linked to processed meat than red meat.
From these studies it was estimated that for every 50g of processed meat consumed every day, the risk of colorectal cancer is increased by 18%.1
With regards to red meat, the risk of cancer was difficult to estimate with WHO citing the evidence not being strong enough as a reason for this.
However, the body is quick to point out if the two were to be linked, the evidence from the same studies suggests that the risk of colorectal cancer is increased by 17% for every 100g of red meat consumed daily.1
What’s the Link between High Temperature Cooking and Cancer?
There are two cancer causing agents that may form when cooking meat at high temperature. These are heterocyclic amine (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
HCAs form when meat (white or red) is cooked under high temperatures either through pan frying or roasting /grilling where there’s direct contact with the flame. The amino acids, sugar (glucose) and creatinine in the meat react at these high temperatures to form HCAs.
The formation of HCAs is more significant when the meat is cooked for longer (i.e overcooked) and is blackened, two major characteristics of nyama choma.
PAHs on other hand are formed in the meat in relation to smoke than temperature.
When fat or juice from meat drop direct to fire or drop the on a hot surface it generates smoke. This smoke contains the PAHs that attaches to the meat surface.
This reaction occurs in both red or white if cooked and is also a cause for concern in smoked meats which are processed using smoke.
PAHs may however come from other sources such as pollution in the environment.
Reducing the Probable Cancer Risk Posed by Meats
In light of all this, it’s important to note that the mechanism through which these chemicals (and by extension red and processed meats) increase the risk of cancer is not well understood and most of the evidence is based on animal studies rather than humans.2
Thus, while the chemicals are carcinogenic or suspected to be, the current stand is that they are a probable risk for cancer in humans rather than a cause.
Regardless, a probable risk calls for some action as more research is done to reach a conclusive stand on the matter.
First, it’s wouldn’t be advisable to cut meat entirely out of your diet based on these data alone. Red meat has various health benefits as it provides nutrients that may not be readily available from plant sources.
Some reasonable and healthy strategies would therefore be:
- to reduce intake of red meat and if possible consume more of white meat (fish, poultry, sea food etc.)
- to avoid or reduce intake of processed meats preserved with nitrates
- to avoid cooking meat by exposing it to direct flames and very high temperatures for prolonged periods (above 300 ºF/~150ºC)
1. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Available at: https://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/
2. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. Available at: