Don’t Let Risk of Cancer Ruin Your Summer Grilling

Meats and hot dogs grilling over an open flame.

Now that summer is here, many of us will be getting ready to fire up that grill and enjoy the smells and tastes of some good barbecue.

While the grill can provide a fun alternative to cooking on the stove, as well as keeping food smells out of your house, you must be careful to not overcook these tasty foods because that may increase the risk of consuming too many cancer-causing chemicals, also known as carcinogens.

Carcinogens are formed when the flesh darkens and chars. Another cancer-causing chemical forms when the fat drips onto the coals or heating element.

In addition to the carcinogens created on the grill, processed meats and red meats also are strongly linked to an increased risk in developing certain cancers.

Although mesothelioma is not caused by these chemicals, certain cancers of the colon are linked to these carcinogens.

How Do These Carcinogens Form?

The chemicals created by cooking certain meats on the grill are heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Lab tests on animals show some HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic, meaning they cause changes in DNA and may increase the risk of cancer after they are metabolized in the body.

HCAs are caused when the amino acids, sugars and creatine (a substance found in muscle meat) react to the types of high temperatures from an open flame or pan frying. We can visually detect these changes in the meat when the flesh browns and eventually blackens.

A higher level of HCAs forms when the flesh chars.

Meanwhile, PAHs begins to develop when the fat from the flesh drips onto the fire, coals or heating element. The flare caused by the drip creates smoke. That smoke contains PAHs that eventually stick to the meat. It’s also caused when people smoke meats in closed containers.

Research shows PAHs also are found in smoke from cigarettes and vehicle exhaust pipes.

Which Foods Carry the Greatest Risk of Producing Carcinogens?

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), which focuses much of its research on diet and cancer prevention, recommends limiting red meat to no more than 18 ounces weekly.

One of the reasons for limiting meat is the type of iron it contains. About 40 percent of the iron in meat is heme iron. It’s what gives meat its red color. Nonheme iron comprises the rest of the iron in meat, but it also is found in fruits, vegetables, iron-fortified foods and grains.

However, heme iron is absorbed at much higher levels than nonheme iron. Heme iron also is linked to colorectal cancer.

Foods that can develop carcinogens when cooked at high temperatures, anything higher than 300 degrees Fahrenheit, include:

  • Fish and shellfish
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Veal

Take caution consuming processed meats, such as hot dogs, salami, ham, bacon and sausages, because they contain higher levels of nitrates and other chemicals used to preserve them.

Smoking, curing and salting meats also raises cancer risk because of the damaging effects of these products in our cells.

How Should You Grill Meats Safely?

There are certain ways to reduce the risk of creating too many HCAs and PAHs in foods such as marinating, sealing food in aluminum foil and precooking.

Here are some tips on cooking food safely to limit cancer risk:

  • Marinate: Studies show marinating meats, poultry and fish will reduce the formation of HCAs significantly. Use a mixture of vinegar or lemon juice, various herbs and spices, and marinate for at least 30 minutes.
  • Precook your meat: Precooking will lessen the time the meat is on the grill, reducing the amount of PAHs. You can precook in the oven or stove and finish it on the grill for flavor.
  • Safer alternatives: Limit your consumption of beef burgers and hot dogs, and go for some nonmeat options such as veggie burgers, veggie kebabs and some grilled tofu. Fish doesn’t require the degree of cooking that meats do, so try some grilled fish recipes.
  • Foil it: Place a foil sheet on the grill first to protect your foods from direct exposure to flames. This way, you eliminate the smoking that occurs when the fat and other juices drip onto the flame.
  • Cook over a low flame: Cooking at lower temperatures avoids charring associated with the formation of HCAs and PAHs. If any charred bits of meat are on your meal, cut them off.

Simple Marinade Recipe Packed with Antioxidants

  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon freshly chopped rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced

Combine all the ingredients, and use mixture to marinate chicken or another meat for at least 30 minutes. Discard the marinade before grilling.

The marinade can also be used on vegetables. Marinade large chunks of red onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and zucchinis. Skewer veggies and serve as tasty kebabs.

This recipe will marinade about 1.5 pounds of meat.

Some Other Interesting and Safe Foods to Grill

You don’t always have to rely on meats for the grill, try some fruit and assorted veggies.

  • Fruit: Watermelon, peaches, figs and bananas make some healthy twists on the grill.
  • Garlic: Peel and roast garlic in a little oil and wrapped in aluminum foil. These cancer-fighting morsels can be cooked in about 20 minutes and stored in the refrigerator for later use.
  • Cauliflower: Slice and marinade in olive oil, salt seasoning and other herbs. Grill each side for at least 2 minutes for an antioxidant-rich side dish.
  1. Anderson, J. and Fitzgerald, C. (2010, June). Iron: An Essential Nutrient. Colorado State University Extension. Retrieved from http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09356.html
  2. Bastide, N., Pierre, F. and Corpet, D. (2011, February). Heme Iron from Meat and Risk of Colorectal Cancer: A Meta-analysis and a Review of the Mechanisms Involved. Cancer Prevention Research. Retrieved from http://cancerpreventionresearch.aacrjournals.org/content/4/2/177.full
  3. National Cancer Institute. (2010, October 5). Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet#r6
  4. Chilkov, N., LAc, OMD. (2012, August 22). The Link Between Grilled Foods and Cancer. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nalini-chilkov/grilling-health_b_1796567.html
  5. AICR.org. (2013, May 6). Cancer Experts Issue ‘5 Steps' Warning on Grilling Safety. Retrieved from http://www.aicr.org/press/press-releases/5-steps-warning-grilling-safety.html

Tejal Parekh is a registered and licensed dietitian in Florida with a master’s in nutrition and dietetics from Georgia State University. She realized her passion more than 10 years ago when she started working with cancer patients. Tejal also is one of the first dietitians in Florida to be board-certified as a specialist in oncology nutrition.

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