From OncoLog, September 2012, Vol. 57,
House Call: Reducing Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Outdoor Cooking
Tips for healthy grilling
How you cook your meat could be increasing your risk of cancer, but
making a few simple changes can yield major health benefits.
While adequate cooking is necessary to kill harmful germs in meat,
research has shown that cooking meat at very high temperatures creates
potentially dangerous chemicals. Grilling any type of meat, even
chicken or fish, until it’s charred—partly blackened—can add to your
risk of cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer
A University of Minnesota study found that regularly eating charred,
well-done meat may increase a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer by up
to 60%. Other research suggests that eating a lot of well-done and
barbecued meat might increase the risk of colorectal and breast
When muscle meats such as beef, pork, lamb, fish, and poultry are
cooked, cancer-causing chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may be formed. HCAs are created
by the burning of amino acids and other substances in meat cooked at
very high temperatures. PAHs are produced when fat and juices from meat
grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames
What can you do to decrease the amount of these chemicals in your food?
Precook before grilling. You can reduce the time on the grill—and the
HCAs produced—by first partially cooking meat or poultry indoors for
2–5 minutes in the microwave or oven at low heat. This prevents the
formation of some of the potentially harmful chemicals while keeping
the food moist. Then finish up the meat on the grill.
Season and marinate your food. Use garlic, rosemary, and sage, which
are antioxidant seasonings that can decrease the formation of HCAs and
PAHs. Cook with virgin olive oil, which also has antioxidant
properties. Marinating grilled foods also makes them taste better.
Limit your meat intake. Diets high in red meat, such as beef, pork, and
lamb—and especially processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, ham, cold
cuts, and sausage— increase colorectal cancer risk, according to the
American Institute for Cancer Research. The institute suggests limiting
your consumption of red meat to 18 ounces per week.
Grill fish instead. Fish contains less fat than do red meat and
poultry, making it less likely to create PAH-carrying smoke. Since fish
requires less cooking time on the grill, exposure to carcinogens is
Prepare your grill. Scrub your grill thoroughly after each use. Before
using it the next time, lightly oil your grill to keep charred material
from sticking to the food, or spread aluminum foil on the grill. Poke
small holes in the foil to allow fat to drain.
Eat more fruits and vegetables. Research has shown that diets high in
plant foods can lower your chances of developing several types of
cancer. At your next cookout, try grilling some fruits and vegetables,
which may not create carcinogens. You’ll get more nutrients if you
don’t peel the vegetables before grilling. Use a light brushing of
canola or olive oil on the vegetables and fruits to help prevent
sticking to the grill.
You can also add fruit to the meat. Researchers at Michigan State
University found that adding cherries, a great source of antioxidants,
to ground beef prior to pan frying reduced the HCAs by about 70%. The
researchers suggested mixing a cup of chopped tart cherries with a
pound of ground beef.
Turn down the heat. Meat cooked at temperatures above 300°F produces
more HCAs. Well-done, grilled, or barbecued chicken and steak, for
instance, all have high concentrations of HCAs. When grilling meat,
lower the settings on gas grills. On charcoal grills, increase the
distance between the food and the hot coals by spreading the coals thin
or propping the grill rack on bricks. Charcoal briquettes and
hardwoods, such as hickory and maple, burn at lower temperatures than
softwoods such as pine.
Try other cooking methods. Cooking your meat by braising, steaming,
poaching, stewing, roasting, or microwaving produces fewer of the
harmful chemicals than does grilling. These methods might not qualify
as outdoor cooking, but it’s a short walk from the kitchen to the
These tips should make your next backyard barbecue healthier.
– K. Stuyck
For more information, talk to your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.
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