Grilling meat should come with a cancer warning

Scott JacksonComment

If well-done burgers or charred hotdogs are your thing, you might want to read this: Regularly consuming well-done or charred meat may increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer as much as 60 percent, according to a University of Minnesota study.

So this means that ruining a piece of meat isn’t the only thing you need to worry about if you’re cooking at high temperatures. High heat can also produce chemicals with cancer-causing properties. Cooking meat at the high temperatures use to grill — as well as broil and fry — creates heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, compounds linked with some cancers.

That’s why cooking meat by grilling, frying or broiling is the problem. Grilling is double trouble because it also exposes meat to cancer-causing chemicals contained in the smoke that rises from burning coals and any drips of fat that cause flare-ups. How long the meat is cooked is also a factor in heterocyclic amine formation; longer cooking time means more heterocyclic amines. Depending on the temperature at which it’s cooked, meat roasted or baked in the oven may contain some heterocyclic amines, but it’s likely to be considerably less than in grilled, fried or broiled meat.

According to the American Cancer Society, PAHs form when fat from meat drips onto the charcoal. They then rise with the smoke and can get deposited on the food. They can also form directly on the food as it is charred. The hotter the temperature and the longer the meat cooks, the more HCAs are formed.

You can avoid exposure to these potentially harmful additives by sticking with so-called natural charcoal brands.

HCAs can also form on broiled and pan-fried beef, pork, foul and fish, not just on grilled meats. In fact, National Cancer Institute researchers have identified 17 different HCAs that result from cooking “muscle meats” and that may pose human cancer risks. Studies have also shown increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancers associated with high intakes of well done, fried or barbecued meats.

But the small cancer risk associated with grilling meat isn’t so great that you need to forgo hamburgers, hot dogs and steaks altogether. Taking a few precautions while barbecuing will minimize the health risks without sacrificing that delicious charcoal taste.

Laura Schwecherl, growth director at Greatist, a web-based health and fitness source, has some excellent tips. Unlike meat, veggies don’t create carcinogens when cooked to a crisp. Still, there’s no need to become a vegetarian or toss the grill completely. Try these safer ways to grill up a storm and stay safe in the process:

Go old school. Got spare ribs (and spare time?). Traditional BBQ methods are a safer route to take, since it involves slow cooking of meats over indirect heat.

Marinate wisely. Scientists have found marinades can make grilling safer by reducing the amount of carcinogenic compounds released in the air. (It’s still unclear why exactly they help.) Try soaking some chicken breasts in one of these healthier options.

Nuke it. Pre-cooking meat in a microwave will kick-start the cooking process and lead to less time on the grill. Cooking meat in the micro for two minutes can reduce HCA content up to 95 percent.

Get a trim. When fat drips onto an open flame, flare-ups can spread nasty chemicals onto the meat. So remove the skin from chicken, and skip fatty meats like sausage and ribs. When food is burned, these chemicals stack up, so remove all charred or burned bits before eating, too. Flipping meat frequently at a lower temperature will also help avoid charring.

Use a thermometer. To prevent cooking at temps too high, use a thermometer to regulate how hot the grill gets. Steak should be cooked to 145 degrees, hamburgers at 160 degrees and chicken at 165 degrees. (To measure, place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, avoiding the bone, fat, and gristle.)

Clean the grill. Make sure the grill is nice and clean to avoid cooking on leftover grease and pieces of char. But heads up: cleaning with metal bristles could leave a few pieces of wire behind (to be accidentally eaten later on). The solution? Clean off the grill with a non-wire brush (or an onion) instead.

Color it up. Try eating grilled meats with cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli. These superfoods contain fancy anti-inflammatory nutrients called isothiocyanates that change the way the body breaks down dangerous grilling chemicals, making the meat safer.

Don’t go well-done. Meat that’s overcooked is associated with no-good chemicals and the health problems that can follow. So follow the recommended temps for safe meat, but make sure not to eat meat that’s too undercooked or raw either.

Leave the meat alone. The easiest solution is to say no thanks to meat. Luckily, there are many meat-free options that are great on the grill.

Based on the existing research, the best approach may be to enjoy grilled meats occasionally, but not on a regular basis. This is a judgment call, but it makes sense to limit your exposure to carcinogens — chemicals linked to cancer — that are found in these grilled meats.

Unlike meat, veggies don’t create carcinogens when cooked to a crisp. Still, there’s no need to become a vegetarian or toss the grill completely. Fruits and vegetables that work well on the grill include onions, green and red bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, pineapple, papaya or mango. Skewers that alternate small bites of meat with vegetables or fruit are an easy way to maximize flavor and minimize unhealthful chemicals. Don’t substitute processed or lunch meats for grilled meat, though. Processed meats contain different kinds of carcinogens that may be even more harmful.

What you eat is even more important than how it’s cooked.

The best advice is to follow a diet in which foods from plant sources are plentiful.

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