When you fire up the grill this summer, you may savor nothing more than meat cooked to a golden brown, satisfying crisp.
But a few missteps in your grilling routine might increase your risk of cancer — and leave you wondering if your sizzling burger is more risky than delicious.
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There are two types of harmful compounds to be aware of when grilling meat:
- heterocyclic amines (HCAs)
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
HCAs form when amino acids (which make up proteins), sugars and creatine or creatinine (substances found in muscle) react at high temperatures, per the National Cancer Institute.
PAHs form when juices and fat from meat grilled over an open fire or other heated surfaces drip onto the fire or surface, which causes flames and smoke. The PAHs are found in the resulting smoke and stick to the meat's surface. Smoking meats can also create PAHs.
While HCAs are only found in significant amounts in meat that's cooked at a high temperature, PAHs are also found in other smoked foods, plus cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes, per the National Cancer Institute.
Human research is still limited, but studies have shown that these compounds may have a correlation to cancer. For instance, numerous in vitro and in vivo experiments have shown that HCAs are powerful mutagens that can induce tumors in animal models, per a 2009 review in the journal Nutrition and Cancer.
The review also noted that studies done on humans (though generally small in sample size) have reported high intake of well-done meat or high exposure to certain HCAs might be associated with the risk of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, stomach, esophagus and pancreas.
Grilled red meat, in particular, may be a risk factor for pancreatic cancer, per an oft-cited September 2002 study published in the journal Mutation Research.
The researchers noted that the method of meat preparation, in addition to total intake, is important in determining the outcomes of eating meat in epidemiological studies.
Fortunately, there's no need to swear off grilling. There are three key ways you can still enjoy barbecued meat while lowering your exposure to these chemicals.
Grilling Tips to Follow at Your Next Cookout
1. Marinate Your Meat
When you marinate your meat, poultry and fish for at least 30 minutes before cooking, you not only give it a boost of flavor, but you can also help reduce the formation of HCAs, per the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
Using a mixture with vinegar, wine or lemon juice and oil, herbs and spices appears to be key.
"These marinades stop cancer-causing compounds from forming on the meat's surface during grilling," says Keith Ayoob, RDN, an associate clinical professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Although more research is needed to determine how exactly marinades help lower HCAs, it may be due to the compounds in the ingredients, per the AICR. Marinating meat has an even bigger effect on lowering HCA formation than reducing the cooking temperature.
"For a marinade, I like the combination of a lemon juice and a vegetable or canola oil, plus an old bay spice or a good grilling spice," says Alanna Waldron, RDN, a dietitian at NYU Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center.
"When you're making your own marinade, just be sure it's kept in the refrigerator to help prevent foodborne illness."
On the other hand, if you prefer a ready-made marinade, these healthy blends approved by Ayoob are a great place to start.
Meat Marinades We Love
2. Cook on a Low Flame
It's important to avoid getting your meat too hot as you grill while still, of course, cooking it to a safe temperature.
"Lower the cooking temperature, or if you're using coals, light fewer," Ayoob says. "This really reduces the formation of HCAs and PAHs."
Your meat's level of doneness, the meat type and cooking method will determine the formation of HCAs and PAHs, per the National Cancer Institute.
No matter what type of meat you cook, however, those cooked at high temperatures — particularly over 300 degrees Fahrenheit — are likely to form more HCAs. For instance, well-done or grilled chicken and steak both have high HCA concentration.
Meanwhile, because grilling exposes meat to smoke, it contributes to PAH formation. Reduce flare-ups by cutting visible fat off the meat.
"You can also line the grill with foil and poke holes so fat drips through," says Ayoob. "This way, the resulting smoke doesn't come into contact with the meat." Wrapping the meat in foil during grilling can also decrease its total levels of PAHs, per a December 2016 study in the Zagazig Veterinary Journal.
There are also several other steps you can take to reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds, per a classic May 2005 study published in the journal Nutrition Reviews that's cited by the AICR:
- Avoid prolonged cooking times — particularly at high temperatures — to help decrease HCA and PAH formation.
- Continuously flip meat that's on a high heat source to significantly lower HCA formation.
- Use a microwave to start cooking your meat, and then top it off on the grill to reduce HCA formation. (This limits the time the meat is in contact with high heat.)
- If you're pan-grilling, don't use gravy made from meat drippings: The pan residue can have as many or more HCAs as the meat itself.
When you're in the market for a grill, consider a gas grill. You can better control the temperature, and for the best results, light the outside burners rather than the center one — then cook food in the center of the grill with the lid closed, per Cedars-Sinai.
You can also simulate this method with a charcoal grill by moving coals to the side of the grill and cooking your meat in the center, so it's cooked by indirect heat.
If your meat does get scorched, you can still salvage it.
“Cut off at least the tips or the portions that are highly charred,” says Waldron. “The more char there is, the more harmful compounds there are. However, a little browning in moderation should be OK.”
3. Choose Healthier Meat
Because PAHs form when fat comes in contact with high temperatures, replace fatty burgers or brats with grass-fed steak, chicken or fish, per Cedars-Sinai.
Fish, in particular, can be quickly cooked, reducing the opportunity for carcinogenic compounds to form.
"Fish never needs a lot of time on the grill," says Ayoob. "Plus, fish like salmon is often grilled with the skin on. Don't eat the skin, and you'll reduce exposure even further."
In general, it's also a good rule of thumb to limit processed and red meats to reduce your risk of cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) classifies processed meat such as sausage and hot dogs as a carcinogen, something that causes cancer.
Any meat that has been treated for preservation or flavor, which may include processes such as salting, curing, smoking and fermenting, is considered processed meat, per the American Cancer Society. Red meat, in general, is a probable carcinogen, aka something that probably causes cancer, per the agency.
People who ate red and processed meat four or more times per week were observed to have a 20-percent higher risk of colon cancer than those who ate it fewer than two times per week in an April 2019 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
The risk of colon cancer was tied to a 19-percent increase for every daily 25-gram serving of processed meat — that's equal to about a slice of ham or bacon.
The World Cancer Research Fund International recommends eating little (if any) processed meat for cancer prevention.
Load up on vegetables, which you can wrap in foil on the grill to avoid exposure to smoke from meat. It’s the protein and fat that become problematic when exposed to high temperatures, so grilling vegetables is a lower-risk way to enjoy barbecued food, per Cedars-Sinai.
“Vegetables and fruits have much less protein and fat than meat, plus they’re delicious and fill out the plate,” Ayoob says. “This way, you can eat a right-sized portion of meat or fish but still fill up.”
- National Cancer Institute: "Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk"
- Nutrition and Cancer: "Well-done Meat Intake, Heterocyclic Amine Exposure, and Cancer Risk"
- Mutation Research: "Meat intake and cooking techniques: associations with pancreatic cancer"
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Cancer Experts Issue Warning on Grilling Safety"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Formation and Human Risk of Carcinogenic Heterocyclic Amines Formed from Natural Precursors in Meat"
- Cedars-Sinai: Healthy Grilling: "Reducing the Risk of Cancer"
- International Agency for Research on Cancer: "IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat"
- American Cancer Society: "What’s Wrong with Hot Dogs, Hamburgers, and Bacon?"
- International Journal of Epidemiology: "Diet and colorectal cancer in UK Biobank: a prospective study"
- World Cancer Research Fund International: "Limit red and processed meat"
- Zagazig Veterinary Journal: "Effect of Heat Treatments on Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons Formation in Meat"