For many of us, this is the time of year to fire up the grill and enjoy the flavor of barbecued foods. But depending on what you throw on the grill — and how often — you might be putting your health at risk. Research suggests too much grilled meat, chicken, even fish, might increase the risk of breast, colon, stomach and prostate cancers. Further, if you like your food well-done or charred, it seems there’s more cause for concern.
Cooking meat at high temperatures when grilling, broiling or frying creates chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that are not present in uncooked meats. They’re formed when amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and creatine (a natural compound in muscle meats) react at high temperatures. Researchers have identified at least 20 heterocyclic amines formed during the cooking of meat that may raise cancer risk.
HCAs interact with enzymes in the body to produce carcinogens that can bind to DNA, causing damage that can lead to cancer. In lab animals, HCAs have been show to cause cancers of the stomach, liver, colon, prostate and breast. The link between HCAs and cancer risk has not been firmly established in humans; scientists aren’t certain as to whether the amounts consumed from grilled meat actually increase cancer risk in people. However, a handful of studies do suggest that a steady fare of well-done meat increases the risk of certain cancers.
There’s also concern that fat dripping from meat onto hot coals, stones or burners creates additional cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Once these chemicals are formed, they’re deposited back on food by smoke and flare-ups. The more intense the heat, the more PAHs are present.
Just about any food is perfectly fine in moderation; it’s important to consider grilled meats in the context of an overall healthy diet. Consider how often you grill, the types of foods you grill, how well done the meats are, and what other foods you add to your plate.
These safe-grilling tips will help minimize the formation of HCAs and PAHs when you barbecue.
Keep portions small, lean
For the safest grilled meats possible, choose lean cuts and trim excess fat before cooking. Keep portions small to cut down on grilling time. Cancer experts recommend eating no more than three ounces (90 grams) of red meat per day (about the size of one deck of cards). If you love red meat, make kebabs since they cook more quickly than whole steaks.
For meats that require longer cooking times, partially cook in the microwave, drain the juices, then finish on the barbecue. Research has shown microwaving meat for two minutes prior to grilling resulted in a 90-per-cent decrease in HCA content. If juices formed during microwaving were poured off before further cooking, HCA content was even lower.
Scientists have learned that even briefly marinating foods before grilling can reduce the formation of HCAs as much as 99 per cent. A marinade may act as a barrier, keeping flames from touching the meat. It’s also possible certain ingredients in a marinade — vinegar, citrus juice, vegetable oil or spices — may help prevent carcinogen formation. If you’re planning to marinate longer than 30 minutes, do so in the fridge.
Lower the temperature
Cooking at a lower temperature will decrease the formation of HCAs. Turn the gas down or wait for the charcoal to become low-burning embers. Raising the grilling surface from the heat also reduces the likelihood of flare-ups. Oven roasting and baking are done at lower temperatures, so fewer HCAs are likely to form. (Poaching, stewing and boiling create negligible amounts of chemicals.)
Flip your burgers more often
A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that burgers cooked at a lower temperature and turned every minute while cooking had 75- to 95-per-cent fewer carcinogens than burgers turned only once after five minutes of cooking.
But don’t undercook your burgers. In order to kill harmful bacteria in ground meat, burgers must be cooked properly. Cook beef burgers to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F (71 C) and poultry burgers to 175 degrees F (80 C). The only reliable way to know if your burgers are done is to test each one with a digital meat thermometer. You can’t judge by colour — beef patties may be brown in the centre before reaching a safe temperature, or can actually stay pink even after reaching the right temperature.
To reduce smoke and flare-ups, avoid letting juices drip into the flames or coals. Use tongs or a spatula to turn foods, rather than piercing meat with a fork. You can also cover the grill with punctured aluminum foil before you cook to protect the food from the smoke and fire. Keep a water bottle handy for coals that flare up. Remove all charred and burned portions before eating.
Grill veggies and fruit
Throw plenty of vegetables and fruit on the grill such as peppers, onion, mushrooms, eggplant, fennel, squash, sweet potato, pineapple, even mango. Harmful chemicals are not formed when you grill these foods, although you should still avoid eating the black char.