Memorial Day is this Monday. Will you be among the many Americans who fire up their grills to barbeque dinner? My husband and I will be, so I’m reviewing some important health information about grilled foods. Grilling is often cited as a healthy way to prepare meat (because the meat doesn’t simmer in its own fat), but grilled meats also harbor health threats. One very serious threat stems from two chemicals formed when meats are grilled: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These two chemicals are believed to promote the development of cancer. Fortunately, this threat doesn’t have to be too much of a damper on your love for barbeque because there are some strategies that mitigate the risks.
- HCAs. When meats are cooked at high temperatures, substances in the meats (amino acids, sugars, and creatine) react to form HCAs.
- PAHs. Flames flare when fat and juices from grilled meats drip onto an open fire. The flames contain PAHs which are then deposited onto the surfaces of the meats.
In studies on animals, researchers have found HCAs and PAHs to be mutagenic (i.e., cause DNA changes that lead to cancer). In studies on humans, researchers have found higher rates of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers among individuals who consume high amounts of well-done, fried, and barbequed meats (meats that contain high amounts of HCAs and PAHs).
Ways to mitigate the risks of HCAs and PAHs
- Partially precook meats. Cooking meats on the stove or in the oven for a short time before placing them on the grill will reduce the amount of time the meats are exposed to flames. Less time exposed to flames means a smaller amount of PAHs will be deposited onto the meats by smoke.
- Cook meats over low flame. Fewer HCAs and PAHs are formed when meats are cooked over low heat. This will also help reduce the amount of burning and charring that occur. Furthermore, flare-ups can be reduced by cutting visible fat off the meats and moving coals to the side of the grill while cooking your meats in the center. If charring does occur, the charred portions can be cut off before the meats are consumed. It’s also a good idea to avoid making gravies or sauces with the drippings.
- Marinate the meats before grilling them. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but fewer HCAs form in meats that have been marinated for at least 30 minutes in mixtures of vinegar, lemon juice, or wine mixed with herbs and spices.
- Cook various meats. For years researchers have known that red meats (e.g., beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (e.g., hot dogs, sausage) are associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Consuming these meats regularly is risky enough—why add HCAs and PAHs to the mix? The research doesn’t indicate that an occasional piece of red or processed meat will kill you (even if grilled), but it does indicate it is beneficial to routinely select meats like fish and chicken instead.
- Grill some veggies, too. Diets rich in vegetables are associated with a decreased risk of cancer. Grilled veggies are particularly delicious, so why not add some to the spread? By filling up on these, you can feel full while consuming less meat. Personally, I think bell peppers, onions, squash, tomatoes, and a variety of fruits are particularly tasty when grilled.
What’s on your menu for Memorial Day? Will you be implementing any of these strategies to mitigate the risks of HCAs and PAHs?