When meats are grilled, they form compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are formed in the meat when it is cooked at high temperatures. Charred pieces of meat in particular may contain additional HCAs. PAHs come from the smoke created when juices from the meat drip onto hot surfaces. This smoke flows up over the meat, and the PAHs can “stick” to the meat – which you then ingest when you eat the food. Some research suggests HCAs and PAHs may increase the risk for cancer.
But don’t worry – you don’t have to skip grilled food completely! While it’s true that these compounds can be potentially hazardous, it’s important to keep the risk in perspective. The research between grilling and cancer risk isn’t as strong as other risk factors. Eating high amounts of red meat, for example, is likely more risky regarding cancer promotion compared to the process of grilling the meat. Plus there are several ways to grill that reduce the amount of carcinogens created.
Here are some tips to reduce the carcinogenic compounds – as well as some tips to simply create a healthier overall meal at your grill:
- Clean your grill regularly. There may be small bits of meat left on there from your previous cooking, and these can create additional carcinogens.
- Did you know the type of marinade you use can impact the carcinogenic compounds? Acidic marinades made with ingredients like vinegar or lemon help protect the meat from absorbing the PAHs in the smoke. Certain herbs present in many marinades may also help protect the meat. On the other hand, sugary marinades like barbeque sauce may cause the food to char more easily, so if you use this, it shouldn’t be applied until the last few minutes of cooking (not to mention sugary marinades typically aren’t as healthy for us).
- Choose lean cuts of meat. In addition to cutting down on saturated fat and calories, these typically have less juices (which often comes from fat drippings) that hit hot surfaces to create smoke and PAHs.
- Don’t overcook the meat, as longer cooking times at higher temperatures will create more carcinogens. Of course, don’t undercook it either, as this can put you at risk for foodborne illness. Use a meat thermometer to determine when the meat is done. Along the same lines, if you end up with meat that has lots of charred bits, these blackened pieces may contain concentrated carcinogens, so try to remove them.
- Toss vegetables on there! Unlike meats, vegetables do not form the same carcinogens when grilled. Though there is potential for chemicals in vegetables to form certain carcinogens when grilled, they would likely have to be badly blackened, and the amount would be negligible. Plus, vegetables provide tons of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals - and high vegetable intake has been shown to decrease the risk of cancer. Experiment with all different kinds of grilled veggies. Corn and eggplant are some traditional items, but what about trying grilled romaine hearts? Brush them with a little olive oil and when they’re done, sprinkle with a bit of parmesan cheese. Or how about zucchini and asparagus? Yum!
- Fruit belongs on the grill too! Just like veggies, fruit can be grilled without the formation of the carcinogens formed when grilling meat. Heating up the fruit this way helps caramelize some of the sugars, creating a new flavor in your favorite fruits. Pineapple, peaches, and watermelon are a few favorites. Once done, you can eat as is, try sprinkling with a favorite spice like cinnamon, or top with a dollop of greek yogurt.