Grilling is a fun, quick and easy way to cook some our favorite meats and poultry (not to mention fish and veggies).
However when meat, poultry and fatty fish are cooked at high temperatures (as in grilling), chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can form. Researchers found that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal (14), pancreatic (15, 16), and prostate (17, 18) cancer.
HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.
HCAs are not found in significant amounts in foods other than meat cooked at high temperatures. PAHs can be found in other charred foods, as well as in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.
Fortunately, there are several (delicious) steps you can take to reduce this risk. Phew!
Marinate your meats: A study conducted for the Food Safety Consortium found that certain marinades can help to reduce the HCAs in the meat. In fact, many studies have shown that marinating your meat before grilling can decrease HCA formation by anywhere from 46% to 96 percent! That’s why marinating meat is our number one tip. However, be sure to mind these rules:
- Choose marinades that contain either acidic (think lime, vinegar, orange juice, lemons) and/or herbs and spices that contain antioxidants (think rosemary, garlic, ginger, chili pepper, basil, mint, sage, marjoram, oregano and thyme), which will lower the amount of HCAs found in the food. Read more about the study here.
- Avoid marinades that have a lot of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, such as rich BBQ sauces, which can actually increase cancer-causing compounds.
- Though marinating for longer times can add more flavor, you will reap benefits of reduced HCAs by marinating foods for even a few minutes — in some cases by as much as 92 percent to 99 percent. As a rule, use about one-half cup of marinade for every pound of food, although large pieces may need more to cover the food’s surface adequately (more info here).
Avoid very high temperatures and flip meat often: To avoid creating carcinogens, start on a medium-high temperature and flip the meat often. This will avoid charring, and that will prevent HCAs. Continuously turning meat over (even on higher heat source) can substantially reduce HCA formation compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it often.
Leaner cuts prevent dripping fat from causing flare-ups, which can deposit carcinogens on the meat. That being said, if any “char” or burnt meat is produced, cut it off.
Enjoy this simple marinade next time you grill.
RECIPE: Rosemary Lemon Marinade for Chicken
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about the juice of 1 large lemon)
1 -2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
1 clove minced garlic
salt and pepper to taste
Mix the above ingredients in a bowl and pour over 1 1/2 pounds of chicken. Marinate for 1-3 hours before grilling.
BONUS TIP! Grilling vegetables or fruits produces no HCAs. Plant-based foods are actually associated with lower cancer risk. Grilled produce is absolutely delicious – the fruits or veggies become sweet and caramelized. Oh so yummy. Just brush with olive oil, dash of sea salt and pepper and you are good to go.
Have a happy and safe holiday!