It’s the season to fire up the barbecue! But depending on what you throw on the grill – and how often you enjoy BBQ foods – you may be jeopardizing your health. Some research 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 of these compounds to human risks of cancer.
What’s wrong 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 are created when fat and juices from meat drip onto hot coals or stones, causing flames, and are then 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 potentially dangerous class of chemical that forms during direct, high-heat cooking is heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
The amounts of PAHs and HCAs that end up in the meats we eat depends on how we prepare and cook them, as well as the grill temperature, so when you use direct-heat or high-heat methods like grilling, consider applying these safety tips:
1. Marinate your meat (but not with sugar).
Certain ingredients in a marinade – wine, beer, 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, for instance, 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, so 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 reduce grilling time, 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 them in the oven or microwave, drain away the juices, and then finish cooking on the barbecue.
3. Lower the temperature.
Turn the gas down or wait for the charcoal to create 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. To minimize juice drippings, use tongs or a spatula to turn foods every minute rather than piercing meat with a fork and flipping less frequently.
5. Grill fish and shellfish instead.
Most types of seafood contain less fat than meat and take less time to cook. Seafood also naturally produces fewer HCAs when cooked.
6. Eat vegetables and whole fruit as sides.
Eating plenty of flavonoid-rich foods – like berries, cherries, red grapes, apples, citrus fruit, broccoli, kale and 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 suppresses carcinogen formation in burgers by nearly 80 percent.