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Your Guide to Healthy Grilling

Grilled Meat: The Cancer Connection

You might be worried about grilling because you've heard that eating charred meat could increase the risk of getting certain cancers. When meat, poultry, pork, or fish is cooked over flames or very high temperatures, muscle proteins react with the heat to form compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs have been shown to cause DNA changes in cells that can lead to certain cancers.

As fat from the meat drips down onto the coals of the grill, it ignites and produces smoke, which also contains cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). When the smoke rises, it can deposit these chemicals on the meat. Exposure to this chemical is believed to be linked to certain cancers.

Studies have linked the consumption of grilled meat to an increased risk for colon, prostate, pancreatic, stomach, and breast cancers, especially if the meat is cooked to well done. One study found that eating charred meat on a regular basis increases the risk for pancreatic cancer by up to 60%.

Hot dogs and sausages pose their own cancer concern, in the form of chemical preservatives called nitrates and nitrites. These processed meats have been associated with a higher risk for prostate, pancreatic, and other cancers.

Experts say you don't need to shut down the grill permanently. Grilling is still a safe way to cook, provided that you do it in moderation and follow a few grill safety tips:

  • Keep it lean. Start with lean meat and cut off all the skin and visible fat before you grill. Not only will this make the meat healthier, but it also will limit flare-ups that can char the meat.
  • Marinate first. Research has found that marinating chicken breasts in a combination of cider vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, and spices can reduce HCA formation by up to 99%.
  • Spice it up. According to one study, rolling meat in spices like rosemary and turmeric before cooking can cut HCA production by more than 40%.
  • Microwave first. Putting meat in the microwave for 2 minutes before grilling could reduce HCAs by 90%. Pat the meat dry after microwaving so there's less juice to drip into the grill.
  • Cook the meat for longer at a lower temperature (under 325 degrees) by turning the gas down or letting the charcoal burn down to the embers.
  • Put tin foil under the meat and poke a few holes in it. This will reduce the amount of juice that drips into the grill, and will allow less smoke to reach the meat.
  • To lower the amount of heat and char on the meat, raise the grilling surface and move the charcoal briquettes to the sides of the grill.
  • Flip the meat about once every minute. Rapid turning will help prevent HCAs from forming.
  • Before you eat grilled meat, cut off any charred parts.
  • Add some veggies to the grill. Vegetables don't form HCAs, plus they're lower in fat and calories, so use more of them and less meat.
  • Clean your grill thoroughly after each use to get rid of any charred food that is stuck to the surface.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD on August 05, 2012
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