Health Tip: Grilled foods can be healthy if you pay attention to the foods you grill and the way they are grilled!

The Basics: Summer is here and the grills are out! Respected authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), frequently give advice such as “grilled foods are generally considered a healthful choice.” At the same time, you may have heard that grilled foods increase the risk for cancer! What are the facts and is there a safe way to enjoy grilled foods?

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Grilling over high heat releases fat from cooking meat. That’s why grilled meats are typically lower in calories than the same meat fried and dripping with grease. But, high temperature and fat are also at the heart of a potential problem. According to the National Cancer Institute, chemicals that may cause cancer form when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry, is grilled. Some of these potentially harmful chemicals form when fat burns over an open flame; others develop when high heat causes a chemical reaction in the cooking meat.

Animals exposed to very high levels of these harmful chemicals, called carcinogens, may develop cancer. The jury is still out on whether these carcinogens affect humans, but there are some limited scientific studies suggesting that high consumption of well-done, fried and barbecued meats is associated with various types of cancer.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Well that’s a major buzzkill! Is there any way to make my BBQ safer!?” Yes! There are general guidelines to make grilling safer. The type of meat or food, the cooking time, the cooking temperature, and the cooking method influences the formation of cancer causing chemicals. With that in mind, if only grilling will do, here are some tips:

  1. Clean the grill before cooking! The leftover char from that last cookout contains the chemicals we are trying to avoid.
  2. Avoid direct exposure of meat to open flame. “Flame-licked” meats have more carcinogens.
  3. Cook your meat thoroughly, but don’t overcook it – use a thermometer to achieve the proper internal temperature. Overcooking and prolonged exposure to high temperatures increases the amount of carcinogens in the meat.
  4. Partially cook your meat before grilling by parboiling or microwaving. This limits the amount of time the meat is exposed to high temperatures.
  5. Flip meat frequently as it cooks. This reduces the amount of harmful chemicals produced during cooking.
  6. Cook lean meats. Remove skin and visible fat before grilling. The more fat on the meat, the more fat there is to drip on coals or open flame resulting in carcinogen production.
  7. Remove heavily charred or burned crust from the meat before consuming.
  8. Grill vegetables and fruits instead of meat. Vegetables and fruits are not only tasty when grilled, they contain little to no cancer-causing chemicals.
  9. Marinate your meat before grilling. Marinades significantly reduce the amount of carcinogens in grilled meats as long as they do not contain a lot of sugar. Rosemary in the marinade seems to be particularly effective.

The bottom line: Grilled meats are tasty, lower in fat and calories, but they may contribute to cancer risk. Keep this in perspective. If you enjoy grilled meats, don’t stop grilling. But, grill more intelligently by using some of the tips above!

More Detail: Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are the two chemical classes of concern. Lab studies show that these chemicals lead to changes in DNA that may contribute to cancer. Exposure to very high levels of HCAs and PAHs in lab animals (thousands of times more than a human would consume as part of a normal diet) can cause cancer in animals. For these reasons, HCAs and PAHs are considered “carcinogens” or cancer-causing agents in animals and perhaps humans. Many types of cancer result in lab animals exposed to these extreme amounts of carcinogens, including breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, prostate and leukemia. HCAs form when amino acids, creatine and sugars combine under high temperatures. PAHs form from combustion of fat and juices from meats. In both cases, high heat is an essential ingredient.

It is important to restate that the jury is still out in humans. A few limited studies suggest that high consumption of well-done, fried and barbecued meats is associated with various types of cancer. Larger studies looking at the relationship between meat intake, meat cooking methods and cancer are underway. PAHs are widespread in the environment from car exhaust, polluted air and cigarette smoke, significantly complicating these studies. At present, there are no US Federal guidelines addressing the consumption of HCA and PAH-containing foods.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Barbecue and Food Safety”:

National Cancer Institute “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk”: