Grilling meat can create a cancer risk.
Consuming grilled meats on a regular basis carries potential cancer risks, says Lana Nasrallah, a clinical dietitian with UNC Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Cooking any kind of beef, pork, poultry or seafood at high temperatures produces cancer-causing chemicals, also known as carcinogens,” she says.
Specifically, grilling causes meat to form carcinogenic compounds known as heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. These are associated with an increased cancer risk. The longer you cook the meat, the more HCAs produced. Charred meat is a sign that a fair amount of HCAs have developed.
The health risks of flames
Grilling also exposes meat to carcinogenic compounds found in flames. These compounds — known as PAHs — can stick to the surface of the meat, Nasrallah says. “When fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip into the fire, this causes flames and smoke, which carries PAHs to the surface of the meat,” she says.
Fortunately, there are grilling strategies that can reduce your cancer risk.
Here are eight ways to lower the cancer risk of grilling:
Cook smaller pieces of meat.
Cut meat into smaller portions so they cook more quickly and have a shorter exposure to high cooking temperatures, Nasrallah says. Cooking at lower temperatures can lower the risk of exposing the meat to carcinogenic compounds.
Choose leaner meats.
Grilling leaner meats with less fat reduces the flames and smoke containing harmful hydrocarbons. Trimming visible fat off meat can also reduce flare-ups and charring, Nasrallah says. Choose chicken, seafood, skinless turkey and lean cuts of beef, lamb and pork.
Break the habit of putting meat on the grill and letting it sit for several minutes before flipping. “Fewer HCAs are formed if you turn meat over frequently while grilling,” Nasrallah says. “Flipping frequently ensures neither side of the meat has time to absorb or lose too much heat.”
Marinating meat, poultry or fish for at least 30 minutes before grilling can decrease the formation of HCAs by creating a barrier between the meat and the flames and smoke, says Anna Taylor, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. Research suggests using a marinade containing either vinegar or lemon juice as well as oil can be helpful. Include any desired herbs and spices. “I like using olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a dash each of minced garlic and Dijon mustard, seasoned with black pepper and Italian seasoning,” Taylor says.
Before you start grilling, partially cook your meat with an oven, stove or microwave, Taylor says. This will lead to less time on the grill. Place the pre-heated meat immediately onto the grill rather than leaving it out at room temperature, to keep the food safe from bacteria.
Control the temperature.
Using a gas grill can allow you better control over the temperature you’re using to cook. To avoid cooking meats at high temperatures, light the outside burner and leave the center burner off. “Cook the food in the center of the grill,” Nasrallah says.
Choose fruits and vegetables.
Grilling fruits and vegetables produces no HCAs, because plant-based foods contain little protein, Nasrallah says. Also, a diet rich in plant-based foods is associated with a lower cancer risk.
Try grilling these vegetables for a healthier cookout:
— Corn on the cob.
— Yellow squash.
Grilled peaches, pears and pineapples can make a healthy and tasty dessert for cookouts.
Wrap it up.
Grilling vegetables and fruits together with meat could potentially expose them to carcinogenic compounds. To avoid that, wrap veggies and fruits in foil while grilling, Nasrallah says. For that matter, it’s a good idea to wrap meats, too, she says.
To recap, here are eight ways to lower the cancer risk of grilling:
— Cook smaller pieces of meat.
— Choose leaner meats.
— Flip frequently.
— Try pre-cooking.
— Control the temperature.
— Choose fruits and vegetables.
— Wrap it up.
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