Does grilling meat increase cancer risk?

Summer is here and that means grilling family favorites in the backyard or picnic area. Many people are already aware of the recommendations to wash hands after handling raw meats, to keep fresh food preparation separate from raw meat preparation, and to use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. But what about this cancer risk?

Grilling meat is often suggested as a healthy way to prepare beef, pork, chicken, and fish. Cooking these muscle meats at high temperatures, however, may increase one’s intake of heterocyclic amines.  These are breakdown products of creatine, an amino acid found in protein foods.  These chemicals that are linked to cancer can form during any high-heat cooking method including frying. More time on the grill or in the frying pan means more of these chemicals forming in the meat.

Grilling adds another specific danger, moreover, from the smoke and char that forms while meat cooks. As the fat and juices from the meat drip onto hot coals or grill surfaces, other compounds also linked to cancer form and are then carried to the meat in the resulting smoke or flames. The char that is often valued for color and rich flavor also contains these compounds.

Research has shown these compounds to cause cancer in animals, and human studies suggest that the chemicals could be associated with colon and stomach cancers.

Thankfully, there are steps that one can take to reduce risk and still enjoy a Sunday barbecue.

  • Clean the grill with hot, soapy water and a brush to remove previous, cooked-on residue.
  • Trim excess fat or use lean cuts of meats and poultry for grilling. This will reduce flame flares.
  • Marinate meats in a citrus or vinegar-based marinade. Food research shows that marinades reduce the formation of cancer-forming compounds.  And some of the marinades add healthy antioxidants.
  • Precook meats in the microwave before grilling to reduce the time on the grill.  Be sure to throw out the juices that accumulate on the dish–the juice could contain unsafe bacteria. Immediately place the meat on the grill and cook to the proper internal temperature.
  • Slice meats thinner to reduce cooking time. Grill lean meats instead of sausage, brats or fatty cuts of meat.
  • Keep the grill covered. This will reduce fire flare-ups and amounts of char.
  • Turn the meat frequently to further reduce charring. Cut away any charred or burned portions before eating.
  • Be adventurous and grill a greater variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, and alternatives to meat, including soy and veggie burgers.

With a little forethought and a watchful eye, the afternoon barbecue can still be a satisfying, delicious, and also healthy food experience. Happy grilling!