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!


A baker’s dozen of healthy grilling tips for summer

With summer on the way, it is time to dust off and fire up the patio grill.  Here are some tips to help ensure not only a tasty outdoor meal but also a safe and healthy family experience.

  1. Wash hands often.  Wash hands thoroughly after handling any raw meat, poultry,      fish, or eggs.  Make this a family rule.
  2. Make sure that the grill is scrubbed clean before every use.  It is important to remove any leftover char or other residue to eliminate cancer-forming compounds and bacteria.
  3. Keep meat, poultry, and fish separate from other fresh foods such as salad items, vegetables and fruit.  This lessens the chance of bacterial contamination and food poisoning.
  4. Keep foods cold until serving or grilling.  Use insulated coolers and keep them in the shade when at a picnic area.
  5. Thaw meats in the fridge, not on the counter.  Again, this lessens the chance of food poisoning.
  6. Marinate meats before grilling in a citrus or vinegar-based marinade to help reduce cancer-forming compounds.  Do not reuse the liquid unless you boil it first.
  7. Place meats close enough to the coals to cook evenly throughout but not close      enough to burn.  If meats, poultry, or fish are too close to the coals, the outside will cook but the inside will not reach a temperature necessary to kill bacteria.
  8. Use clean dishes and serving utensils to transfer cooked food from the grill to the plate.  Dishes and utensils used for raw food and then not cleaned with hot, soapy water could be a source of bacteria and contaminate grilled or fresh food items.
  9. If partially precooking foods, make sure to place these items immediately on the grill.  Or, cook completely, cool until needed, and then warm on the grill.
  10. Avoid charring meat.  Cook to medium instead of well done. 
  11. Avoid flare-ups, another source of cancer-causing compounds.  Dripping fat can cause flame flare-ups, so trim the fat on meats and keep a spray bottle close by to put out flares.
  12. Use a food thermometer to check doneness.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that whole poultry, chicken breasts, and ground poultry reach 165 degrees.  Other ground meats should reach 160 degrees.  Beef, pork, lamb, or veal steaks, roasts, and chop should reach 145 degrees and then be allowed to rest for at least three minutes.
  13. If you are new to grilling or would like a refresher on operating a grill, check out the      safety tips offered by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA).

Now go out and enjoy your grill!