When it comes to cooking meat, you’ve probably heard that grilling is the healthiest ways to go, right?
Not so much.
This seemingly healthy cooking process could be turning your meat into a cancer-causing killer.
I didn’t know this myself until recently… but grilling meats and fish on the barbecue can create 2 chemical compounds that may contribute to cancer.
#1: Heterocyclic amines or HCAs. They form when the amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react with the high heat of grilling.
#2: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. These form when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames containing PAHs then rise in the smoke and stick to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food-preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.
Studies show that exposure to HCAs and PAHs can cause cancers in laboratory animals. A diet supplemented with HCAs led to tumors of the breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, prostate and other organs, while a diet supplemented with PAHs led to cancers, including leukemia and tumors of the gastrointestinal tract and lungs.
Of course, you should know the doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies were very high — equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet.
Even so, it’s scary stuff.
Is there a safe way to grill?
I don’t know about you, but I love a good grilled steak once in a while. The thought of not being able to barbecue ever again makes me sad.
But there is good news. There are ways to make grilling safer. Here are some suggestions:
Precook your meat. Cook it halfway over low heat in a skillet or in the oven before putting it on the grill. Or preheat in the microwave. This will reduce the time on the barbecue and will reduce the liquid in the meat. That means there’s less to react when grilled later.
Use aluminum foil. This will prevent drippings from smoking and reduce the amount of PAHs blowing into your food.
Use leaner cuts of meat. And trim excess fat. Doing so will help cut down on drippings. And it’s healthier for you all around.
Grill on medium heat. Not high — it’s the high heat that causes the reaction. For a charcoal grill, spread the coals thin or prop the grill rack on bricks. This reduces the heat by increasing the distance between your food and the coals.
Lightly oil the grill before you use it. This simple step keeps charred materials from sticking to your food. And scrub the grill after each use to keep cancer-causing chemicals from building up.
Turn meat frequently. This can reduce HCA formation, compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it frequently.
Remove any meat that’s charred. And never make gravy with meat drippings.
Marinate meat using herbs with protective benefits. A study in the Journal of Food Science found that soaking steaks in a Caribbean marinade for an hour before grilling cut HCAs by almost 90%.
The marinade included a wide variety of herbs and spices, but the protective action is primarily attributed to rosemary and thyme.
These herbs contain a trio of compounds (carnosic acid, carnosol and rosmarinic acid) that are powerful antioxidants.
So try using rosemary, thyme, oregano or basil in your next meat marinade. These aromatic herbs combine well with garlic, onion, salt, pepper, all spice and other marinade staples. Plus, they work equally well in mild and spicy varieties.
And remember, a barbecue doesn’t have to be limited to meats. Make veggie and fruit kabobs with peppers, cherry tomatoes, onions and pineapples. It’s a delicious way to load up on cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
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1. Smith JS, Ameri F, Gadgil P. Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. J Food Sci. 2008 Aug;73(6):T100-105. PMID: 19241593.