Nutrition Column – Do Grilled Foods Pose a Cancer Risk?

As the weather heats up, many of us look forward to the great American summer pastime of backyard grilling. Yet, recent research indicates that grilling muscle meats, such as red meat, poultry and fish, may pose certain health risks.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, cooking these foods at high temperatures, especially over an open flame, produces substances called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which have been shown to cause tumors in animals. While the risk to humans is less clear, there is concern that high levels of HCAs may increase the risk of breast, colon, stomach and prostate cancers. In addition to HCAs, another class of cancer-promoting substances, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are formed when fat from meat, poultry or fish drips onto hot coals or stones, causing flare-ups. PAHs are deposited onto the food when smoke and flames are allowed to reach the food.

Does this mean you should do away with Saturday backyard barbecues with family and friends? Not if you take a little care to keep high heat flare-ups under control. Here are some tips on how to minimize the formation of HCAs and PAHs and still produce delicious, flavorful dishes.  

– Clean the grill thoroughly before cooking to remove any charred food debris left over from previous uses.

– If using starter fluid on charcoal, allow the excess to burn off before putting the food on the grill. Never reapply starter fluid while cooking.

– Choose lean cuts of meat to grill rather than higher-fat varieties such as ribs or sausages.  Also, trim any visible fat and remove skin from poultry.

– Marinate meat using an oil-free marinade. Marinating meats for as little as 10 minutes may significantly reduce the formation of HCAs.

– Consider pre-cooking meat, poultry, and fish in the microwave or oven until almost done and then finishing on the grill to impart a grilled flavor.

– Grill vegetables, fruits or veggie burgers. Unlike meat, these foods do not form cancer-causing substances when prepared on the grill.

– Grill at a lower temperature away from direct flame and raise the cooking rack to the highest position. Use a meat thermometer to monitor doneness.

– Use tongs or a spatula to turn food. Piercing the meat with a fork allows juices and fat to drip down onto the coals and cause flare-ups.

– Place meat on aluminum foil rather than directly over the coals to avoid letting juices and fat drip into the fire and to prevent charring.

– Flip frequently. Researchers have found that grilling hamburger patties at a lower temperature and turning them often accelerates the cooking process, reduces HCA formation and still kills bacteria effectively. This method also enhances even cooking throughout the product.

– Have a spray bottle filled with water to keep coals and flames under control.

– Scrape off all charred or burnt portions of food before eating.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension