Churning out picture-perfect grill marks on your steaks is not only a sign of being an expert grillmaster, but a sign of something else. With grilling season in full swing, here’s how to fire up a safer barbecue. 

When High Heat Meets Muscle Meat

When you cook muscle at high temperatures (whether it’s beef, pork, poultry, or fish), two potentially cancer-causing chemicals are formed according to lab studies. 

Potentially cancer-causing chemicals are formed when meat is exposed to high heat

These chemicals are called:

1. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) — HCAs are formed when cooking muscle at high temperatures and particularly when the grilling produces black char marks. The proteins react to the intense heat and lab studies have shown HCAs alter DNA which could lead to cancer.

UPDATE: According to the National Cancer Institute, well-done (vs medium or rare) meat contains higher concentrations of HCAs. Cooking muscle above 300°F, whether grilling, pan frying, or broiling, OR cooking for long periods of time tend to form more HCAs.

2. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — PAHs are formed when fat and juices drip off the meat and into the grill which burn and cause flames and smoke. PAHs come back up in the smoke, and these potentially carcinogenic compounds cover and stick to the meat.

NOTE: PAHs can be found in other smoked foods as well as cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.

Tips for Cancer-Safe Grilling

No need to stop firing up the grill especially since it’s a fast and easy way to get a meal on the table. But here are tips on making your next barbecue healthier.

  • Go Lean:  Since PAHs are produced when fat hits an open flame, choose leaner meats and trim the fat. Avoid processed meats like fatty sausages and hot dogs. Don’t press meat down onto the grill grates or pierce your meats. The fat and juices will drip onto the flame and cause more PAHs to form. So use a spatula or tongs to flip your meat versus a BBQ fork which will pierce the meat.
  • Go Green: Fruits and vegetables don’t produce HCAs. Produce doesn’t have muscle or fat — both of which are the problems when exposed to high temperatures. 
  • Wrap It: Don’t cook your fruits/veggies with your meat. The fat dripping from the meat will fall into the flames and coat your produce with PAHs. If you do cook them together, wrap the produce in foil to protect them from the smoke OR wrap the meat in foil to prevent the fat from dripping on the hot flame.
Protect veggies from cancer-causing smoke
  • Marinate It: Research suggests marinating meat for at least 30 minutes. Acidic rubs and marinades (e.g., citrus- or vinegar-based) break down some of the muscle in the meat and may help reduce the number of HCAs formed. Some researchers think the marinade also forms a barrier that protects the meat from the heat. 
  • Sugary marinades/glazes and BBQ sauces that contain a lot of sugar can burn easily and cause more charring. 
  • Try a rub made with olive oil, pepper, spices, chili peppers, and herbs which seem to help inhibit the formation of cancer-causing compounds due to their high antioxidant properties
Pineapple enzyme breaks down muscle tissue

NOTE: Pineapple is a good tenderizer. It contains bromelain, an enzyme that is present in all parts of the fresh fruit, and breaks down proteins (collagen). But avoid cooked or canned pineapple and commercial (pasteurized) pineapple juice because the heat used in processing destroys the enzymes. Bromelain is also sold commercially as a tenderizer in powdered form, but don’t leave it on too long as the meat may become too mushy.

  • Pre-Cook It: Partially cook your meat in the oven, microwave, or on the stove first to reduce the time your meat is exposed to flames.
  • Cut It: Skewer small cuts of meat (such as with kabobs) which will cook faster and reduce the amount of time exposed to the heat and reduce HCA formation.
  • Flip It Frequently: Creating the pretty, but unhealthy, black char marks means letting the meat sit on the grill to scorch. According to the National Cancer Institute, continuously turning your meat to cook the meat can substantially reduce HCA formation vs just leaving it on the grill without flipping it very often.
  • Go for Gas: The heat on a gas grill is more controllable, so opt for gas versus a charcoal grill. Charcoal burns hotter than gas, and you can’t dial down the heat. Light up the outside burners only. Don’t light the center one, but cook your meat in the center of the grill with the lid closed.
  • Clean the Grill: Clean the grill grates before grilling to remove any old char, and keep it clean throughout the grilling as well.

Karen’s Fit Tip:

Try to minimize the smoke you’re breathing in. Get creative and barbecue more plant-based foods (e.g., asparagus, red peppers, tomatoes, peaches, mangos, and pineapple). They don’t form cancer-causing chemicals and are cancer-protective on their own.



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