Healthy Grilling: Avoid Those Carcinogens!

Photo by Mess of Pottage via Flickr

Mark was unloading the bags of groceries he picked up for “Mark’s Mega Memorial Day Barbecue Extravaganza.” Well that’s what the guys called it anyway.  And with ten pounds of beef, ten pounds of chicken, five packages of hot dogs and some sausages, he felt like he’d definitely earn that distinction this year.  It was going to be awesome!

“Mark?” Stacy called from the door leading into the house as he grabbed a couple more bags and carried them to the garage freezer. “Jill next door just told me that she heard that grilling foods causes cancer.”

“What?” Mark turned around, caught off guard. “Grilling is healthy. That’s why we do it.  All the fat drips off making the meat leaner.”

“Well, she said there were studies and everything.  And I know with your family history of cancer, you’d want to know.”

“But what do we do with all this meat?” Mark said gesturing back at the freezer, weighing both his mother’s and uncle’s fights with cancer against the weekend’s festivities. “We’re throwing a huge party in a couple days.  I can’t cook all this meat in the house.” Mark sighed, rubbing his forehead. But I don’t want to give anyone cancer either.” “Why couldn’t Jill have told you this after the party?”

What makes grilled foods unhealthy?
Well, Jill’s friend was right.  Grilling foods produces carcinogens, which are cancer causing agents. That is the case regardless of what meat you grill or what type of fuel you grill with.  Grilling exposes the meat and whoever eats it to two separate carcinogenic sources.

  1. Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): These chemicals are produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures.  When the muscle protein in red meat, poultry and fish are subjected to intense heat they create HCAs, which have been linked to cancer, especially cancer of the colon and breast.
  2. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): These chemicals are produced when fat drips from the meat into the flames and produces smoke.  The PAH filled smoke rises and coats the food, contaminating it.  But they are also created, and in higher concentrations, when flames touch the meat itself, charring and blackening it.

How can I reduce my exposure to HCAs and PAHs?
The good news is that Mark doesn’t have to give up on grilling and everyone can still enjoy the cookout (including you).  Here are a few simple precautions that will minimize the amount of carcinogens that are consumed:

  1. Select smaller cuts of meat: This decreases grilling time and reduces exposure to carcinogens.
  2. Keep fat to a minimum: This reduces the amount of carcinogens.  So, choose lean meats, take the skin off poultry and trim any visible fat prior to grilling.
  3. Marinate meat prior to cooking: Marinating meats using marinades made with thin, liquid sauce using vinegar, citrus juice or red wine may reduce the formation of HCAs.
  4. Precook meats: Reducing the grilling time decreases your exposure to carcinogens.  So, partially cook your meats on the stovetop or oven prior to grilling. But cook at lower temperatures, because higher temperatures produce more HCAs.
  5. Grill at lower temperatures: Lower the heat on the gas grill and if you are using charcoal or wood, increase the distance of the food from the fire.  Temperature is a very important factor, as meats cooked at high heat have the most HCAs.  But when you cook at lower temperatures, don’t forget to use a meat thermometer to ensure the interior meat reaches the correct temperature for safe consumption.
  6. Flip your meat frequently: This will cook the meat faster and produce less HCAs.
  7. Use Aluminum Foil: Place foil between the food and the fire.  If you place the foil on the grill, perforate it to allow fat to drain off the meat.  This will decrease the contact of the food with the flame and decrease the potential of charring or blackening.
  8. Don’t eat charred or blackened foods: This includes grilled vegetables.  PAHs form when any food is charred.
  9. Grill fish and vegetables instead: Vegetables will not produce HCAs.  And fish usually has less fat than red meat and poultry and requires less time to grill, further reducing the exposure to carcinogens.
  10. Don’t grill too often: Grilling occasionally is not a problem.  Our bodies are fairly resilient, but don’t grill too frequently or you could be tempting fate, especially if you have a family history of cancer.

The bottom line:
You don’t have to give up grilling if you really love it.  Just follow some simple precautions to reduce your exposure to carcinogens.  That way you can enjoy your future cookouts.

If you are in the United States, enjoy your Memorial Day weekend everyone! For everyone else, enjoy your weekend!

Comments (4)

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  1. Maria Isabel says:

    Good podcast! Thank you for the wonderful ideas how to barbecue and the preparations to have a healthy meal.

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  3. […] that if your outside! You do not want the neighbors asking you why your back deck is smoking! Also it is unhealthy to eat something that is blackened and charred. The more you grill the more you will get to know how long things will take and how things should […]

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