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Avoid Carcinogens, Not the Grill This Summer
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Avoid Carcinogens, Not the Grill This Summer

Cooking on the grill can add carcinogens to your meal. Here's how to avoid them.

BY Sonya Collins
PUBLISHED June 16, 2014

Summer brings with it the smell of burgers on the grill. While studies show that grilling meat can form carcinogens, there are ways to avoid these potentially cancer-promoting agents without avoiding the grill.

Grilling meat can produce two types of carcinogens: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs form when any muscle meat—animal flesh as opposed to organ meat—is cooked at high temperatures. PAHs form when fat drips from the meat onto the flame. The chemicals rise in the smoke and flames and cling to the meat.

New research reinforces the link between grilling and carcinogens, while uncovering more specific connections, such as relationships between types of charcoal and level of carcinogen formation, and type of meat and the types of cancer it may induce.

“We’re getting new, interesting science, but none of it changes recommendations to the public,” says Kristin Anderson, a cancer researcher and associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

There’s a big difference between cooking thoroughly and charring. You don’t have to form carcinogens to cook to an internal temperature of about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

But that doesn’t mean spending the summer avoiding backyard barbecues. “There’s a big difference between cooking thoroughly and charring,” Anderson says. “You don’t have to form carcinogens to cook to an internal temperature of about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.”

These tips will help grillers reduce cooking time, temperature and carcinogens:

> Choose lean meat and light rather than dark poultry. Remove skin and trim fat to reduce drippings.

> Marinate meats in a lemon- or vinegar-based marinade. In one study, marinades reduced formation of HCAs on grilled steaks by 57 to 88 percent. Thick marinades that contain honey or sugar can cause meat to char. Use them only in the last two minutes of grilling.

> Steam meat (two to five minutes) or microwave (60 to 90 seconds) immediately before grilling to release juices that could drip onto the flame. This has completely eliminated PAHs in beef or chicken in research studies.

> Grill foods on a cedar plank or aluminum foil. Poke holes in the foil to allow fat to drip through while preventing smoke from rising back onto the meat. Or wrap foods in foil.

> Don’t place meat directly over the flame.

> Don’t press the meat while it cooks. This releases drippings onto the flame.

> Clean the grill and replace charcoal after every use. Residual meat and fat drippings can continue to cook and become carcinogenic.

While all grilled muscle meats pose similar risks, processed meats, such as hot dogs, sausage, cured meats and some ground meats, have been linked with cancer regardless of how they are cooked. Nitrates or nitrites—chemical preservatives added to processed meats—can become carcinogenic during the curing process or when digested. They are listed on nutrition labels, and most health experts recommend avoiding them, especially in large amounts.

“That doesn’t mean becoming a vegetarian,” says Laura Newton, a registered dietitian who counsels cancer survivors about nutrition at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Survivorship and Supportive Care Clinic. But she recommends that everyone limit their intake of meat, “particularly red meat and processed meat.”

Red meat consumption should be limited to 11 to 18 ounces per week. Studies have shown higher rates of colon cancer in people who consume more than 11 ounces per week.

Newton says the best red meat portion is about three ounces, or the size of a deck of playing cards. And her advice to patients and survivors is simple: Don’t obsess over what’s not on the menu.

“Focus on what you can have,” she says, “and what you know you enjoy.”

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