South Africa has one of the highest colon cancer rates in the world, and braaied red meat is the chief culprit. (Reuters)

[From our archives] More pap, less vleis

Mia Malan
If you are going to braai this Heritage Day, pap with your meat could lessen your chances of cancer.

South Africa has one of the highest colon cancer rates in the world, and braaied red meat is the chief culprit.

One in 83 men and one in 131 women are at risk of getting cancer of the colon -- and it can be fatal. The Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) warns that people who consume more than 70g of braaied meat a week are at significant risk of developing colon cancer.

Colon cancer is 10 times more prevalent in white people than in black people. Cansa's Dr Carl Albrecht says this could be because black people overall consume less red meat and eat pap with their charred meat.

"Pap releases anti-carcinogens such as butyric acid in the colon," he says. "This means it produces fatty acids that kill off cancer cells. It's very effective, as red meat cooked at high temperatures produces various mutogens, or cancer-producing cells, that are fought off by the fatty acids."

To have this effect, the pap must not be steaming hot when it is eaten. Experts also note that if you add a tomato and onion sauce to the pap it becomes even healthier, because vegetables such as tomatoes and broccoli contain anti-carcinogens.

Braaied red meat can be dangerous because it contains amino acids that produce cancerous chemicals when exposed to high temperatures, says Albrecht. "The higher the temperature, the more of these chemicals are produced and the more dangerous the meat becomes. Red meat also contains lots of iron that produce similar molecules that change our DNA and eventually lead to cancer."

As if that were not bad enough, braai smoke is as dangerous as cigarette smoke, Albrecht says -- and sometimes even more so, as you also get to "eat" it. All smoke contains polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which cause cancer.

"That's why you shouldn't let your meat be directly exposed to flames," says Albrecht. "PAH sticks on to the meat and you eat it, in addition to inhaling the smoke next to the fire. Our livers detoxify much of the 'poison', but they can only do so much. If you braai more than once a week, your liver may not be able to help you with all of it."

One study published in the medical journal, Cancer Causes & Control, found that people who ate red meat with a darkly browned surface more than once a week were more than twice as likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate red meat only once a week and with a lightly browned surface.

The good news is that marinating meat generally helps make it less toxic when braaied -- the sauce often contains spices that have anti-carcinogenic properties. "These spices help to fight off cancer," Albrecht says. "The more of them on your meat, the better."

[Note this article was originally published on 29 September 2009]