Grilling with a Healthier Mindset

By the Office of Occupational Health and Safety; contributed images
Meat and vegetables on the grill.

Grilling less meat and more fruits and vegetables is one way to lower exposure to HCAs.

Summer means another chance to grab some ribs and fire up the grill, but eating certain types of grilled meat may increase your chances of developing cancer. Here is a glimpse of how cancer and grilling are related and some ways you can lower your risk.

Grilling and Carcinogens

Chemicals such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when muscle meat is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as grilling. Most of the meats we consume—including burgers; steaks; chops; roasts; and chicken thighs, legs, breasts, and wings—are considered muscle meats.

Laboratory studies have found that these chemicals cause mutations, and animal models have shown they can be carcinogenic.

Although there has been limited success in mapping HCA/PAH exposure and cancer risk—it remains unclear whether exposure causes cancer—studies, like those at the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, have shown that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats is associated with an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.

Ways to Lessen Exposure:

  • Consume grilled meats in moderation.
  • While grilling:
    • Avoid directly exposing the meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface, and avoid prolonged cooking times at high temperatures. (Doing so will reduce HCA and PAH formation).
    • Use a microwave oven to cook meat, reducing HCA formation by minimizing the time the meat must be in contact with high heat.
    • Continuously turn meat over on a high heat source, which reduces HCA formation in comparison to not flipping the meat and leaving it on a heat source.
    • Remove charred portions of the meat.
    • Refrain from using gravy made from meat drippings.
    • Marinate the meat for at least one hour, which lowers HCA formation.
  • Grill other foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which do not form HCAs in the same quantities, but avoid charring because PAHs can still be found in other charred foods.

Other Resources for Healthy Grilling:

Some Fun Recipes:

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