So you're planning a Memorial Day barbecue and you want to at least nod to your health. You love a juicy burger or corn on the cob or shrimp kebabs on the grill, but you've also heard that grilling can cause cancer. So what's the deal?
What You Should Know
Don't put away the charcoal just yet. "There's not enough evidence to say, 'Don't ever grill,'" says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, the director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society (ACS). The cause for concern is two different compounds that can form while cooking meat on a grill, both known carcinogens.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form in protein-rich foods when cooked at a very high heat -- like that of your backyard barbecue, says Doyle. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when fat drips and burns on the grill, creating smoke. "As the smoke circulates around your meat, those compounds can get deposited on whatever you're grilling and you consume it," she says.
While the majority of the research on the impact of these compounds has been conducted in animals, we shouldn't disregard the implications for people, experts say.
One study found that regularly eating well-done meat (no matter the cooking style) was linked with a 60 percent higher chance of developing pancreatic cancer, Health.com reported. A diet high in HCAs has been linked to an increased risk of breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, prostate and other cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). PAH-high diets have been linked to leukemia, as well as GI and lung cancer. And a number of ongoing studies on cancer prevention and diet seek to shed greater light on the effects of these compounds on human cancers, as there are currently no guidelines as to how much consumption of HCAs and PAHs is advisable, according to the NCI.
What You Can Do
While grilling meat, poultry and fish can create these carcinogens, there are some smart steps that can help to protect yourself.
First, the leaner the cut of meat the better, since there will be less fat to drip onto the hot grill. Fish and chicken also have lower levels of the amino acids that lead to HCA production, says Doyle. Removing the skin from chicken can help reduce the risk as well, Reader's Digest reported.
The shorter the cooking time at high heat, the healthier. Fish doesn't need to cook as long as steak, for example, says Doyle, which means there's less time for the compounds to form and adhere to your meal. To limit exposure to the high heat of the grill, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recommends precooking meat in the microwave or oven or on the stove for a few minutes. "Precook it a little so it doesn't have to stay on the grill for as long," explains Doyle, "but you can still get that fabulous grilled flavor."
Alternately, if you've got some time to spare, cook your meat at a lower temp on the grill. HCAs begin to form at 325 degrees Fahrenheit, Health.com reported. As long as your meals are meeting minimum cooking temperatures suggested for food safety, you can feel a little better about your carnivorous cravings.
Should part of your meal become charred, cut or scrape it off, says Doyle. And the charred remnants of last week's grilling need to go, too. Before you get started this weekend, clean the grill thoroughly. Otherwise, that charred buildup can transfer to your meal. For particularly tough grease, Reader's Digest suggests the following:
"Put the dirty rack into a plastic garbage bag. Add water and dishwashing liquid and leave overnight. Brush off the residue and rinse."
A little foil over the grill can help, too. Covering the grates with perforated foil still allows juices to drip, but prevents some of the resulting smoke from rising up, according to Reader's Digest. Similarly, skip piercing your meat to see if it's done, says Doyle, since doing so causes more fat to drip and drain and more smoke to billow.
There's also mounting evidence that the way you prepare your meat can make a difference, says Doyle. Marinating meat even just for 30 minutes seems to limit carcinogen formation. A number of spices, in addition to adding fun flavor, seem to offer particular protection, including red pepper, thyme, sage, garlic and especially rosemary, Health.com reported.
And what you select for a side dish can help, too. Fruits and veggies are rich in naturally-occurring, cancer-fighting phytochemicals, and may help combat the damaging effects of overdone meat, HealthDay reported. Plus, they only need a short time on the grill to take on that smoky flavor.
"It's always a fabulous idea to add fruits and vegetables to your meal," says Doyle. "We talk about eating smaller portions of meat for health reasons. Make those side dishes, like fruit salad or grilled asparagus, the real stars of your plate, and don't have the meat be the big focus."
Processed meat in particular is worth some extra caution. Those hot dogs and sausages you might contemplate grilling have been associated with increased risk of colorectal and pancreatic cancers, as well as an increased risk of dying from cancer or heart disease, according to 2013 research. "Think about grilling anything beside red and processed meats," says Doyle.
Thankfully for all of us cookout connoisseurs, we don't have to give up grilling all together, she says. But "it's certainly worthwhile to be aware of these things and how you can reduce your exposure."
How do you make grilling a little bit safer and healthier? Let us know in the comments!
This post has been updated to remove the recommendation to clean the grill with a wire brush, as some reports have suggested doing so may pose a health risk.