It’s the season to fire up the grill and enjoy the flavour of barbecued foods. But depending on what you throw on the grill – and how often – you might be jeopardizing your health. Research suggests that eating too much grilled meat can increase the risk of certain cancers. A recent report published in the Washington Post suggests that when cooked at high temperatures or over open flames, compounds in red and processed meats undergo biochemical reactions that produce carcinogenic compounds. Although the research has not yet been conducted in humans, emerging evidence is starting to connect the dots to human risks of cancer.
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What is the problem with cooking meat at high temperatures?
Cooking meat at high temperatures when grilling, broiling or frying creates chemicals called polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons (PAHs), which scientists speculate increase cancer risk. PAHs can damage DNA and cause cancer in animals. In humans, high intakes of barbecued meats are linked to a greater risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.
PAHs are created when fat and juices from meat drip onto hot coals or stones causing flames and are deposited back onto meat by smoke and flare-ups. The higher the heat and the longer the cooking time, the more PAHs are generated.
Another class of chemical that forms during high heat cooking is heterocyclic amines or HCAs. These chemicals have also been shown to cause changes to DNA that could lead to cancer. Evidence suggests that high intakes of HCAs increase the risk of colorectal adenomas - benign polyps that can develop into cancer. How much PAHs and HCAs end up in grilled meats varies – it depends on how long you cook it, the grill temperature, and how it’s prepared.
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SAFE GRILLING TIPS
Essentially, the hotter and longer a meat is cooked, the more HCAs and PAHs are produced. Direct heat methods like frying and grilling produce more carcinogenic compounds than indirect-heat methods like stewing, steaming or poaching.
When you are using direct-heat or high-heat methods, try the following tips:
1. Marinate your meat (but not with sugar). Certain ingredients in a marinade – wine, tea, vinegar, citrus juice, vegetable oil and fresh herbs – can help prevent carcinogen formation. A marinade also acts as a barrier, keeping flames from touching meat and poultry. Marinating meat in beer has been shown to cut PAH formation by as much as half. Its beneficial effect is attributed to a particular flavonoid (phytochemical) in hops, called xanthohumol. Ale beers have a higher antioxidant capacity than lager beers (e.g. lagers, pilsners). That means better choices for marinating your steak include stouts, porters, dark ales, cream ales, IPAs (India Pale Ale) and pale ales.
2. Keep portions small. To cut time on the grill, use smaller cuts of meat. Instead of a whole steak, grill kebabs since they cook more quickly. For meats that require longer cooking times, partially cook in the microwave, drain away the juices, and then finish on the barbecue.
3. Lower the temperature. Turn the gas down or wait for the charcoal to become low-burning embers before grilling meat. Oven roasting and baking are done at lower temperatures so fewer chemicals are likely to form.
4. Flip often. Continuously turning meat over can substantially reduce HCA formation. So can flipping burgers every minute versus only once after five minutes of cooking. To minimize juice drippings, use tongs or a spatula to turn foods rather than piercing meat with a fork.
5. Grill fish and shellfish instead. Most types have less fat than meat and take a shorter time to cook. Seafood also produces fewer HCAs when cooked.
6. Eat vegetables and whole fruit as sides. Eating plenty of flavonoid-rich foods – berries, cherries, red grapes, apples, citrus fruit, broccoli, kale, onions – may help offset the harmful effect of PAHs and HCAs. Research has also shown that adding one cup of mashed whole cherries to a pound of ground meat suppressed carcinogen formation in burgers by nearly 80 percent.
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