It’s the season to fire up the grill and enjoy the flavour of barbecued foods. But depending on what you throw on the grill – and how often – you might be jeopardizing your health.
That doesn’t mean you have to resort to cooking indoors this summer. In fact, broiling or pan-frying your steak is thought to be equally risky. What seems to matter most is the type of food you grill, what you do with it before it meets the grill, and how long you cook it.
Chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed from free radicals during high heat cooking (e.g. grilling, broiling, frying). PAHs damage DNA and cause cancer in animals. In people, high intakes of barbecued meats are linked to a greater risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.
PAHs are created when fat and juices from meat drip onto hot coals or stones causing flames; they’re deposited back onto meat by smoke and flare-ups. The higher the heat and the longer the cooking time, the more PAHs are generated.
Since PAHs are made from free radicals, it’s possible that foods and beverages high in antioxidants could block their formation. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, countering their harmful effects.
There’s another chemical that forms during high heat cooking: heterocyclic amines or HCAs. They’ve also been shown to cause changes to DNA that could lead to cancer. Evidence suggests high intakes of HCAs increase the risk of colorectal adenomas, benign polyps that can develop into cancer.
How much PAHs and HCAs end up in meat depends on how long you cook it, the grill temperature, and how it’s prepared. Practice the following tips to minimize their formation.
Certain ingredients in a marinade – dark beer, wine, tea, vinegar, citrus juice, vegetable oil and fresh herbs – can help prevent carcinogen formation. A marinade also acts as a barrier, keeping flames from touching meat and poultry.
Keep portions small
To cut time on the grill, use smaller cuts of meat. Instead of a whole steak, grill kebabs since they cook more quickly. For meats that require longer cooking times, partially cook in the microwave, drain away the juices, and then finish on the barbecue.
Lower the temperature
Turn the gas down or wait for the charcoal to become low-burning embers before grilling meat. (Oven roasting and baking are done at lower temperatures so fewer chemicals are likely to form.)
Continuously turning meat over can substantially reduce HCA formation. So can flipping burgers every minute versus only once after five minutes of cooking. To minimize juice drippings, use tongs or a spatula to turn foods rather than piercing meat with a fork.
Grill fish and shellfish
Most types have less fat than meat and take a shorter time to cook. Seafood also produces fewer HCAs when cooked.
Add fruit and vegetables
Eating plenty of flavonoid-rich foods – berries, cherries, red grapes, apples, citrus fruit, broccoli, kale, onions – may help offset the harmful effect of PAHs and HCAs. Research has also shown that adding one cup of mashed cherries to a pound of ground meat suppressed carcinogen formation in burgers by nearly 80 percent.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.