You may have heard that grilled meat has been linked to cancer. It's true. High heat and long cooking times produce a chemical known to cause cancer in animals. And some studies suggest that exposure to high levels of this chemical may also lead to cancer in humans.
But don't lose sight of another significant fact when it comes to barbecues: What you grill is just as important to your health as how it's cooked.
Meat — such as chicken, pork, beef and lamb — is more likely to produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These are the cancer-causing compounds formed when grilling or cooking at high temperatures.
Another cancer-causing compound — polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — can form when fat and juices from meat drip on the heat source. As smoke rises, the chemical can stick to the surface of the meat.
Remember, meat or poultry that is not well done carries other serious health risks.
The right stuff
Wait! Don't cancel the family barbecue yet. If it's the flavor of the grill you enjoy, you can get it without the cancer risk. Most fruits and vegetables have few or no HCAs and PAHs when grilled.
Try some of these healthy grilling choices:
- Soy-based veggie burgers
- Portabella mushroom "steaks"
- Pineapple, papaya or mango
You can also make skewers that alternate bites of meat with vegetables or fruit. That way you'll eat smaller portions of the meat.
Reducing HCAs and PAHs
Here are a few more tips on how you can reduce HCAs and PAHs in the meat you grill:
- Cook meat at lower temperatures and for shorter times. Just make sure that the meat is cooked properly and heated to a safe temperature. One way is to precook meats in the oven or microwave, and then finish cooking them on the grill.
- Avoid direct exposure to an open flame or hot metal surface.
- Select lean cuts of meat or trim fat off the meat. This will reduce dripping fat that can produce PAHs. Or spread foil on the grill to reduce flare-ups, and make small holes in the foil so the fat drains.
- Opt for smaller cuts and flip meat often to speed up cooking.
- Don't eat blackened or burnt meat and cut off any charred bits. Those parts have the highest levels of HCA.
- Marinate meats before grilling. Some studies show that marinades can reduce the formation of HCAs.
The bottom line: Enjoy your cookout and add salad and melon to the menu. Grilling fruits and vegetables is a healthy option for you and your guests, too.
Created on 05/26/2001
Updated on 05/13/2013
- National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in meat cooked at high temperatures and cancer risk.
- American Institute for Cancer Research. Cancer experts issue seasonal warning on grilling — With an important research update.
- United States Department of Health and Human Services. Report on carcinogens: 12th edition, 2011.