To Grill or not to grill- is that the question?
Kim McCorquodale RD, CSO
Spring is hopefully upon us and most of us are looking forward to enjoying grilled foods. Unfortunately, traditional grilling practices can increase your cancer risk.
There are 2 types of cancer-causing compounds that increase in some grilled foods. The first is called heterocycline amines (HCAs), and these increase when any type of meat (especially beef) is cooked with high heat (including pan-frying). HCAs can damage our DNA and start the development of cancer. Most of the evidence connects HCAs to colon and stomach cancer, but they may also be linked to other types of cancer. Below are some changes you can make to reduce the formation of HCAs.
- Reduce temperatures: turn the grill’s gas down, or wait for low-burning embers on charcoal. Fry at lower temperatures too- it only takes a few more minutes and produces much less HCAs.
- Raise the grilling surface and flip meat every minute to reduce charring (highly carcinogenic).
- Marinate: this can reduce HCA formation by up to 96%. Research is looking at which ingredients are the best.
- Add spices: Rosemary, turmeric and fingerroot appear to block up to 40% of HCAs formation through their antioxidant activity. Add these spices to your marinade to provide even more protection. One caveat: turmeric (sometimes called curcumin) may interact with some cancer treatments, so check with your doctor or dietitian regarding this.
- Use a meat thermometer: cook meat until recommended temperatures, but not more. The higher the cooked temperature, the more HCAs formed.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are the other cancer-causing compound that increases with grilling. These form in smoke and then get deposited on the outside of meat. Selecting leaner cuts of meat will help reduce PAHs because they drip less causing fewer flare-ups and smoke.
Other ideas to reduce your risk include:
- Grill more marinated fish and chicken, or make red meat kabobs to limit serving size.
- Grill more vegetables and fruits. These don’t form HCAs and also supply tons of cancer-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals from veggies help your body convert HCAs to an inactive form that can be easily eliminated.
So the question is not whether you should grill, but how and what. Follow the above suggestions, and you will be on your way to a healthier grilling season.