From OncoLog, September 2012, Vol. 57, No. 9

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 Research.

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 cancers.

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 and smoke.

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 also reduced.

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 backyard.

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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