Healthier Grilling: Decreasing Cancer Risks

by in Food Safety, May 20, 2009


These days, everything causes cancer, it seems — grilling is no different. Now, we’re not suggesting you never grill (believe me, I love grilling), but there are a few steps to take to make it safer.

Cancer Risk #1: HCAs
There are two possible links to cancer when grilling. The first is heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are formed when amino acids (the building block of proteins) and creatine (a compound naturally found in the muscles of meat) react at high cooking temperatures. Now, grilling isn’t the only way to get HCAs; broiling and frying can do it, too.

Cancer Risk #2: PAHs
The other cancer-causing substance is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), which forms when fat from grilled food drips on hot coals or ceramic bricks and produces smoke. The chemical travels in the smoke, which then infuses it into your foods. The higher the heat, the more PAH is formed. Smoking meats can also form higher PAH levels.

Decreasing the Chances
I won’t go into the full science — and they’re still researching risks and any links. There’s need to give up grilling (my husband would never agree to that), but you can takes some steps to play it safer:

  1. Trim fat off meats and poultry to reduce the drippings or opt for leaner cuts (read our recommended list). Catch drippings in foil or a pan to decrease extra smoke.
  2. Cook at lower temperatures (around 350-400°F) and make sure the flames do not come into direct contact with your food.
  3. Don’t overcook food — HCAs and PAHs accumulate more in the blackened part of the food. Yes, char marks are part of grilling’s beauty, but cut burnt sections off.
  4. Marinate your meats, poultry and fish before grilling. This reduces the amount of HCAs that can form during cooking. Even marinating for as little as 10 minutes helps. before cooking, remove the food from the marinade and drain for a minute to prevent flare ups.
  5. Try certain marinade ingredients. These include vinegar, citrus juice and vegetable oil. Herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage add flavor and are linked to reduced HCA formation.
  6. Turn your food often. According to a recent study, burgers cooked at lower temps but turned every minute can produce 75-95% fewer cancer-causing agents than those turned every 5 minutes or so.

This article mentions research that showed adding a cup of mashed cherries to a pound of ground meat suppressed carcinogen formation by 90%. Hmm, cherry-flavored burgers? I wonder how those would taste.

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