Hot dogs, hamburgers and brats are the grilling staples of summer.
Heating meats to searing temperatures over an open flame is sure to add great flavor, but the process also causes a chemical reaction that could increase your risk for cancer.
There's no evidence that grilling alone causes cancer, but cooking meat at high temperatures creates chemicals linked to some cancers. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been found to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.
HCAs and PAHs are chemicals formed when meat has contact with high temperatures through pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame.
Stephanie Small, a clinical dietitian at Mercy Medical Center, said studies involving rodents suggest that these chemicals cause certain types of cancer, including, liver, colon and stomach.
"In those studies the rodents were fed high amounts of the HCAs and the PAHs, thousands of times more than what would be in a normal human diet," she said.
A study conducted by Chinese researchers and published in theMay 2012 edition of DNA and Cell Biology found an increased risk of breast cancer among Asian women who ate smoked meat.
Researchers at the University of Texas studied what kind of meat 659 patients with kidney cancer ate, how they cooked it and their genetic risk factors. They found that patients with renal cell carcinoma ate more red and white meat than the control group, 699 healthy individuals. They also found that patients who had two genetic mutations that put them at risk for kidney cancer were affected most by eating grilled meat. That study was published in the August 2015 edition of Cancer Research.
Small said there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and still enjoy grilled steaks, chicken and pork.
• Choose lean cuts of meat, especially when cooking over an open flame. The more fat there is to drip, the higher the chance of chemicals forming.
• Small also recommends cleaning your grill and using a meat thermometer to test your meat's doneness.
• Turning your meat frequently, she said, can also reduce the production of chemicals.
• If you cook your meat a little too much, she recommends cutting off the charred pieces. Well-done meat has a higher chance of containing HCAs and PAHs.
"You may choose to pre-cook your meat just slightly maybe in the microwave or the oven," she said. "That way you finish it on the grill, which then leaves that meat on the grill for a shorter period of time, reducing your risk of the HCAs and the PAHs."
The American Institute for Cancer Research says marinating your meat for 30 minutes can reduce the formation of HCAs. The marinade acts like a barrier between the meat and carcinogens.
But remember, Grilling isn't limited to meat.
Small encourages grillers to try veggie or soy burgers or even marinated tofu.
"You could grill a Portobello mushroom for a hamburger," she said. "Black bean and quinoa burgers are another option."
Pineapple, peaches and even watermelon can be grilled. Brush a little olive oil on the fruit before placing it on the grill grate.
"Those pieces of fruit and vegetable can be put directly on the grill grate," Small said. "But if they're smaller pieces you may want to use a grill basket so they don't fall through the grates of the grill and create flames."
Small said her family enjoys grilling pineapple, which she said actually tastes better without the brown sugar glaze that many cooking sites recommend.
Keep it clean
Potentially hazardous chemicals aren't the only dangers Small said you need to worry about when firing up the barbecue.
One in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning this year, according to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Cross-contamination is a top safety concern. Small said you should always use separate cutting boards when preparing meat and vegetables or fruit, and wash grilling utensils with warm soapy water after handling raw meat.
If you're grilling raw meat and vegetables at the same time, Small said you should designate certain spots on the grill for each to prevent cross-contamination.
"You don't want to use a utensil to handle raw meat and then use that same utensil to handle the fully cooked meat," she said. "Make sure that you wash your hands between handling a raw meat and fresh vegetables."