The sun is shining, your friends are gathered around the grill, and you’re firing up some steaks, burgers and chicken. Unfortunately, that seemingly innocent barbecue may make even the healthiest meat and fish a cancer-causing nightmare.
That’s because barbecuing meat and fish can create two chemical compounds that may contribute to cancer. Heterocyclic amines or HCAs form when the amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react with the high heat of grilling. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs form when fat and juices from meat drip onto the fire, causing smoke and flames to rise up and settle on the meat.
Exposure to high amounts of HCAs or PAHs is linked to changes in DNA, a mutagenic effect that can derail healthy cell division and increase the risk of cancer. PAHs, in particular, are making a name for themselves as a toxic pollutant to avoid in excess because of their cancer-causing properties.1,2
This news doesn’t mean you have to hang up your long-handled spatula for good. There are ways to keep barbecuing safer. Here are some suggestions:
- Precook your meat. Cooking it halfway over low heat in a skillet or in the oven or preheat in the microwave will cut the time your meat spends on the barbecue and decrease the liquid in the meat so there’s less to drip into the fire.
- Trim excess fat. This will help cut down on drippings. And use leaner cuts of meat, which is healthier anyway.
- Grill on medium heat. For a charcoal grill, spread the coals thin or prop the grill rack on bricks. This reduces the heat by increasing the distance between your food and the coals.
- Lightly oil the grill before you use it. This helps keep charred materials from sticking to your food. And remove any meat that’s charred. Scrub the grill after each use to get rid of build-up.
- Flip the meat frequently. This can reduce HCA formation.
- Rub your meat with rosemary. A study done at Kansas State University found that soaking steaks in a Caribbean marinade for an hour before grilling cut HCAs by almost 90 percent.3 Researchers give the protective action nod primarily to rosemary and thyme. Or marinate in garlic, which has compounds called allyl sulfides which may protect cells DNA from carcinogens before cancer even starts.
- Throw some veggies on the grill. A barbeque doesn’t have to be limited to meats. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and bok choy contain sulforaphane and indole-3 carbinols, which may help prevent cancer cells from multiplying.
So enjoy your grill this holiday. And when you’re outside celebrating, don’t forget the sunscreen!
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1. Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Nakagama H, Nagao M. Heterocyclic amines: mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish. Cancer Sci. 2004;95(4):290-9. Review. PMID: 15072585.
2. Lee JG, Kim SY, Moon JS, Kim SH, Kang DH, Yoon HJ. Effects of grilling procedures on levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in grilled meats. Food Chem. 2016;199:632-8. PMID: 26776018.
3. Smith JS, Ameri F, Gadgil P. Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. J Food Sci. 2008;73(6):T100-105. PMID: 19241593.