Grilling and Cancer – 6 Tips For Safe BBQs

Ah, summer and barbecue parties! Many of us are concerned, however, about the carcinogens that may come with grilling and other types of high-temperature cooking.

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Burgers aren’t the only bugaboo. All meat – chicken and seafood as well as red meat – have compounds that react at high temperatures and create heterocyclic amines, or HCAs.

More than 30 studies have found that HCAs “may pose a cancer risk,” reported an exhaustive review on lifestyle habits and cancer prevention published by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research.*

Grilling and Cancer

Grilling also exposes meat to carcinogenic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which form when fat drips onto flames and are contained in the smoke wafting from burning coals.

So must we toss out the barbecue? Not at all. Just don’t fire it up all the time. The World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute of Cancer Research report states that the highest risk of cancer was linked with people who were eating well-done meats cooked at high temperatures several times a week.

Scientists don’t really know what “dose” is safe, but chances are that the occasional (once a week or less) grilled seafood, chicken, or lean red meat (such as bison or elk) poses little, if any, risk.

There’s more good news about grilling and cancer risk reduction.   Several very simple strategies can improve the safety of grilling and other high-temp cooking like broiling. Here are 6 tips for safe, tasty summer grilling.

1. Fill up most of your grill with veggies.

Grilled vegetables have great smoky flavor and no cancer-causing chemicals. That’s right, plant foods do not produce HCAs and PAHs.

So cut up in thick grillable slices a big colorful bunch of savory veggies like bell peppers, fennel, zucchini, yellow squash, sweet potatoes, red onions, and asparagus. Just throw them on the grill. They’ll come out deliciously roasted – the perfect partner to your seafood or meat – and so easy!

2. Microwave your meat for about a minute or two before grilling.

Grilling meat for a shorter amount of time should reduce the formation of HCAs because the meat isn’t exposed to high temperatures as long. The National Cancer Institute reports that precooking meat in the microwave for two minutes before exposing it to high-temperature grilling, broiling, or frying may decrease HCA content by 90%.**

In addition, if the liquid that forms during microwaving is poured off before further cooking, the final quantity of HCAs is reduced, states the National Cancer Institute.

Of course, don’t overdo the microwaving. It will dry your meat out.

3. Flip your meat often.

Frequent flipping both lowers the temperature that your food’s being cooked and hastens overall cooking time; plus, outer layers end up less overdone, all of which are great ways to end up with fewer HCAs.

4. Grill smaller pieces, like the 3-1/2-ounce portions recommended by the Pritikin Eating Plan.

They cook more quickly and at lower temperatures.

5. Slather on the marinade.

Marinating meat before putting it on the grill may lower the formation of HCAs. Do use marinades with little or no oil. That way, less fat drips onto the coals, cutting down on PAH formation.

For a salt-free, oil-free marinade for chicken breast or seafood, try this simple concoction. Put your meat in a shallow baking dish, pour fresh lemon juice over it, and top with chopped onion and a few chopped or minced garlic cloves. Turn your entrée every 10 to 15 minutes for an hour. Then grill, basting each side.

Or try our zesty recipe in this issue – Jerk Seasoning. It’s one of 65+ recipes from the recently published book The Pritikin Edge: 10 Essential Ingredients For a Long and Delicious Life (Simon & Schuster).

6. Don’t char your meat.

If your meat’s riddled with burnt, black stripes, you’ll end up with a hefty dose of HCAs, no matter how much marinade you’ve slathered on. So keep a watchful eye on the grill.  Aim for medium-cooked meat, not well done.  Your dinner will not only taste better, it will be better for you.


* “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective,” at www.dietandcancerreport.org.

** http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/heterocyclic-amines


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