Don’t let that scare you. You can grill the safest, most delicious foods without the health risks.
Fire up that grill, and let’s go!
Grilling makes food taste better. It doesn’t matter what you put on there. It smells and tastes amazing. Grilling doesn’t just make food tasty. It offers some legitimate health benefits. For instance, you don’t need much oil for grilling unlike, say, sautéing in a pan. Fat drips off during cooking. That’s not to say dietary fat is bad. In fact, the right balance of dietary fat is important for health. Plus, if you’re grilling, it probably means you’re cooking for yourself so you know all the ingredients. The company of family and friends, the great outdoors, the easy, minimal cleanup—all these perks mean you’ll be less tempted to head to a restaurant or call for takeout. In the big picture, calorie-packed dishes, overeating, social isolation, and lack of outdoor exposure do more to damage our health than the occasional intake of HCAs or PAHs.
But doesn’t grilling cause cancer? Grilling meat does produce a couple of chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer. The first are Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) from when meat is overcooked or charbroiled. HCAs can damage and change DNA. Thus, the Department of Health and Human Services places HCAs in the “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” category. Not good. Human research shows that eating a lot of HCAs is associated with a higher risk of cancer. More than 17 different HCAs have been identified as potentially risky for humans. Four factors influence HCA formation:
- type of food
- how it’s cooked
- how long it is cooked.
Temperature is the most important of these four. While HCAs begin to form at 212 F (100 C), the truly nasty types start to be made in large quantities at about 572 F (300 C). Most people grill their food in the 375-500 F range, though some will go up to 650 F to sear a steak, for example.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when meat is charred or blackened, or when fat from the meat drips onto the hot surface of the grill. This forms PAHs in the smoke, which then permeates the meat. PAHs include over 100 different compounds formed by the incomplete burning of organic matter (e.g., oil, gas, coal, food, etc.) at temperatures in excess of 392 degrees F (200 C).
The Environmental Protection Agency has classified seven PAHs as probable human carcinogens. PAH creation is influenced by: temperature of cooking,
how long food is cooked, type of fuel used in heating, distance from heat source, and the fat content of the food. Essentially, the hotter and longer a meat is cooked, the more HCAs and PAHs. Direct heat methods like frying and grilling produce more than indirect-heat methods like stewing, steaming, or poaching.
Use herbs and spices. They make food taste good and help lower HCA and PAH content. Rosemary is the most researched herb. It can lower HCA formation by up to 90 percent in some cases. Other herbs from the mint family such as basil, thyme, sage, and oregano all decrease HCA formation. Turmeric can also decrease HCA formation by up to 40 percent. Humble onion powder has also been shown to reduce one of the major types of HCAs (PhIP) by up to 94 percent. Fresh garlic, when used in marinades, can also decrease HCA formation by up to 70 percent. Marinate your meat. Acid– based marinades (vinegar, lemon or lime juice, wine, yogurt, etc.), can dramatically reduce HCA formation. On the other hand, honey BBQ sauce marinade increased HCA formation 1.9-2.9 times! This was likely due to the high sugar content and low phenolic and antioxidant content of the BBQ sauce. (Bonus tip: an acid-based marinade likely contains less sugar and fewer
calories than the BBQ sauce. But if you are going to use BBQ sauce, put it on at the end of cooking. That way it’s less likely to burn and char.) Beer marinades work, too– particularly ones made with dark beer. Even coating your meat in a little olive oil can keep HCA in check by helping to prevent the meat from charring. Be careful not to go crazy with marinades, as fat dripping on the flame can increase PAH levels.
Don’t overcook. HCAs and PAHs depend on temperature plus time. The hotter the temperature and the longer the cooking time, the more HCAs and PAHs get produced. Well-done meat contains three and a half times as many HCAs as medium-rare meat. Blackened and charred meat have the highest levels of HCAs and PAHs. So, either prevent them from developing in the first place, or cut blackened bits off when they happen. Exposure to high heat in general can be a problem. While it might seem better to use lower-temperature, longer-cooking barbecuing methods, this approach actually leads to very high levels of PAHs and HCAs because meat is cooking so long. Remember it’s temperature and time, not just one or the other. Cook until meat reaches appropriate internal temperatures for food safety, but no longer.
Choose meat wisely. Highly-processed meats have a much stronger link to cancer than less-processed meats. This remains true even when factoring in the HCAs and PAHs created by grilling whole-food meats. So start with high-quality meat. Most of the time, use whole, less-processed cuts of meat such as steaks, chicken thighs, ribs, etc. Fresh fish and seafood grill up nicely as well. If you like burgers, try making your own with ground beef, lamb, pork, bison, chicken, or turkey. If you like sausages, look for fresh, traditionally made versions, if possible. And go with relatively leaner cuts, as fattier cuts drip more lipids into the grill, causing greater PAH formation.
Include lots of fruits and veggies. Like herbs and spices, fruit and vegetables (especially colorful ones) are full of health promoting chemical compounds. In particular, foods that inhibit the mutagenic activity of HCAs include: cherries, dried plums, apples, blueberries, red grapes, kiwi, watermelon, spinach, parsley, green and black tea, and red wine. Fruits and vegetables also help the liver remove potential toxins from the body. In particular, cruciferous veggies like: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussel sprouts. Probiotics in fermented dairy foods, like a yogurt dip, are also effective at neutralizing HCA mutagenic activity. Interestingly, the yeast in beer also seems to have some neutralizing ability. So even if you don’t use a beer marinade, drinking a beer with your grilled meat can significantly lower the mutagenic activity of the HCAs that formed.
These tricks can help reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs: Cut your meat into smaller pieces to shorten cooking time, which decreases the risk of charring and burning, and lowers the exposure of the meat to high temperatures. Flip meat frequently to further reduce charring and burning. Cook meat on medium-high heat. Longer cooking times and higher temperatures can both pose health risks, so a moderate approach is best. Cover the grill with foil to reduce drips and flare-ups.
What to do next? Cook at home. If grilling helps you do more home cooking, go for it. Enjoy your grilled meat as part of well-balanced meals. Share the fun of summer grilling with family and friends. Meanwhile, think about what you’re putting on your plate alongside the grilled meat. Mayo-drenched potato salad and a pile of chips? Or a fresh salad and a skewer of grilled veggies? The usual dose of common sense applies. Keep the risks in perspective. Overall, HCAs and PAHs make a minor contribution to your cancer risk. Being sedentary, having excess body fat, and eating a diet rich in highly processed foods are much greater risk factors. If you have some slow-cooked, pit-roasted ribs in your life once in a while, you’ll probably survive, and likely be happier overall. Don’t be afraid of your food. Hey, if you just want a burger and a beer on a hot summer day, enjoy it and move on.