Like a lot of people, I love the smell of meat barbecuing on the grill in the warmer months. And a burger or steak hot off the grill has a unique, mouth-watering taste you can’t get with any other method of meat preparation.
When it comes to cooking, grilling is sui generis – in a class by itself.
But as my longtime readers know, grilling meat also generates molecules that increase your cancer risk. In previous articles, I’ve opined that there’s not much risk in eating grilled food once in a while, but eating it often may be a hazard.
What can you do to reduce the risk and still enjoy the foods you love? Let’s take a look. . .
Much of the carcinogenic complication in grilled food starts when fat from the meat drips down onto the wood or charcoal and burns off. When the fat goes up in flames, it creates what are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – PAHs. They stick to your food and they are even in the smoke you may inhale from the barbecue.
The PAHs are “known to be carcinogens and lead to cell death at high concentrations,” says researcher Gary Perdew of Penn State, who has studied how our bodies cope with these toxins.1
Blackened meat not such a treat
The second problem with grilling is sad news for those of us with a taste for blackened meats. The charred sections consist of what are called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. They form when any kind of meat – turkey, chicken, beef, lamb, fish, etc. – is cooked at high temperature. They’re an incinerated combination of the amino acids and creatine in the muscle tissue of the meat.
Along with being a probable carcinogen, HCAs can also increase your chances of insulin resistance and diabetes, according to research conducted in Israel.
To see what I mean, consider a study at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center that ties renal cell carcinoma – the most common form of kidney cancer – to consuming barbecued meats.
According to the Texas researchers, doctors are finding kidney cancer in more and more people. They believe our penchant for consuming processed food and meat cooked over an open flame is an important factor in the spread of this malignancy.
Increasing the risk of this type of cancer is an HCA called 2-amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo(4,5-f) quinoxaline.2 This specific HCA, says researcher Xifeng Wu, “is one of the most abundant heterocyclic amines commonly created in grilling, barbecuing, and pan-frying meats at high temperatures.”
In addition, a study at the University of North Carolina shows that women who have survived breast cancer are at an increased risk of an earlier death if they frequently eat “grilled/barbecued and smoked meat.”3
How to grill safely
So, all that being said, the best ways to cut your risk from grilling include4 –
- Marinate your meat before you cook it. When you marinate meat, fish or chicken for 30 minutes or more, fewer carcinogenic HCAs form when you put them on the grill. While no one is sure why this is protective, one theory is that the sugar and fat that sticks to the meat from the marinade absorbs the heat and is seared instead of the proteins in the meat.
- Cook your meat with spices, herbs, black or green tea, chili peppers and other botanic ingredients. The spices and other plant substances contain natural compounds called phenols — antioxidants that can chemically react with the carcinogens that form and change them into less harmful substances. And research shows that phenols can lower the risk of diabetes, obesity and inflammation.5
- Don’t put processed meat on the grill. Processed foods like hot dogs have been strongly linked to cancer, and researchers believe we eat too many of them. And if you thought consumption of these processed meats has gone down, think again. Americans are still eating as many hot dogs as they did a couple of decades ago.6 Plus, processed meat has been classified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.7 It poses a danger no matter what method you use to cook it.
- Limit the time food is on the grill. By cooking things faster, you limit the HCAs that form. Some experts recommend baking your meat a little in the oven first before throwing it on the grill. Cutting your meat into smaller chunks can also help it cook more quickly and form fewer HCAs. Some experts advise cooking food in aluminum foil to protect the food from smoke and help it cook faster. However, research does show that cooking items in foil can leach aluminum into your food at unhealthy levels.8
- Grill more fruits and vegetables. Vegetarian foods don’t form harmful carcinogenic chemicals the way meats do when they’re grilled.
- Cook at lower temperatures. If you have a gas grill, don’t turn the heat way up. If you’re cooking over a wood fire, choose a hardwood like maple or hardwood instead of a soft wood like pine. The hardwoods don’t burn as hot. Charcoal also burns at a lower temperature than softwoods.
- Keep a clean grill. That char that builds up on the grill? When it gets on the next burger or steak that’s being cooked, it adds carcinogens to your food. So give the grill a good scrub between cooking sessions.
- Don’t breathe in the barbecue smoke. When you inhale the smoke coming off the grill, you may get a carcinogenic lung-full of HCAs. To cut down on your exposure, you should also wash your clothes after a barbecue. Taking a shower doesn’t hurt either.
- Keep the fat out of the fire. Since dripping fat creates carcinogens when it falls into the fire and burns, try to cook leaner cuts of meat that don’t yield as much fat. And don’t poke your utensils into the cooking meats – that releases fatty juices that burn.
So while you’re doing your cookouts this summer, keep these tips in mind as you flip your burgers and steaks. And don’t forget to flip them frequently as you cook. Turning them over more often can also minimize the formation of HCAs.