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Savor the barbecue flavor — minus the risk

For people who want to enjoy an outdoor summer meal and still watch their weight, grilling can be a lean and heart-healthy alternative to frying. Unfortunately, the same grill that gives food that crispy, smoky taste can also turn your burger into a toxic meal, reports Susan Moores, R.D.
A steak of Argentine beef is put on the grill of a
Some people may be more susceptible to the cancer-causing chemicals in grilled meats. But there are easy ways to cut your risk.Miguel Mendez / AFP/Getty Images

If you like to sear your steak to a crisp, you could be playing with fire.

For people who are watching their weight, grilling lean meats, poultry and fish can be a low-calorie, low-fat alternative to frying. Unfortunately, the same grill — whether gas or charcoal — that gives food its mouth-watering barbecue taste can also turn your burger into a toxic meal.

Cooking over high flames turns chemicals found naturally in muscle meats and fish into cancer-causing substances known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Both have been linked to an increased risk of several cancers, including colorectal, breast and prostate cancer.

Watch the heat
HCAs develop through a series of reactions between the amino acids and other compounds in meat. High-temperature cooking — over 300 degrees Fahrenheit — and the length of time a food is heated trigger their formation. PAHs get into food when dripping meat juices cause the grilling surface or coals to flare up, engulfing the meat or fish in fragrant, but toxic, vapors.

Researchers believe both HCAs and PAHs can tweak a person's DNA and lead to the growth of abnormal cells, which then have the potential to turn into cancer cells. It’s also been suggested that some HCAs may have an estrogen-like effect on the body. Estrogen has been linked to breast cancer and stroke in older women.

In addition, there may be a genetic component that makes some people more susceptible to the effects of these chemicals. Enzymes in the body activate both HCAs and PAHs. Some people may make more of these enzymes than others and so may be more prone to their carcinogenic effects. This is especially true if those people consume fewer protective fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, blueberries, broccoli and others.

So, what's a griller to do?

“Keep grilling,” says Dave Grotto, R.D., a Chicago-area barbecue buff and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. It’s a great way to cook foods in a low-fat manner.”

Although the link between grilled meats and cancer in humans is still being investigated, if you follow these six easy tips, you can significantly cut your risk:

  • Marinate before grilling.  It can reduce HCA formation in meat and fish by up to 99 percent, says Grotto. Herbs are helpful, too. Rosemary, garlic and sage may block the formation of both HCAs and PAHs in and on the food. Add the seasonings to light marinades or as ingredients to other dishes you serve with your grilled foods. A citrus or olive oil marinade can also counteract HCA buildup.
  • Turn down the heat. High-temperature cooking, including frying, broiling and barbecuing, not only can turn your meat into shoe leather, it's fuel for the carcinogens. Allow coals to cool to embers before cooking. On a gas grill, move the rack up a notch to distance foods from the flames. “Placing a barrier between your foods and the grill, such as cooking foods in an aluminum pan on top of the grilling rack, works well, too,” says Grotto.
  • Think small.  Smaller cuts spend less time over the flame than big slabs of meat. Flip them frequently, too. Turning meat over every minute greatly reduces HCAs. Use tongs to turn foods. “Puncturing meats with a fork may cause juices to flow and drip on to the coals,” Grotto advises.
  • Avoid overcooking foods. The longer you grill your meat, the more the carcinogens develop. Undercooking meat can be dangerous, too. To avoid the risk of harmful bacteria such as E. coli, be sure to grill meats to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.   
  • Pre-cook foods. Microwaving meats for a couple of minutes before placing them on the grill can cut the effects of HCAs about 90 percent. The microwave draws liquid out of the meat, which in turn reduces flare-ups on the grill.
  • Partner grilled items with cancer fighters. Antioxidants and other phytonutrients in fruits (apples, grapes and berries), vegetables (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, onions) and even tea can stall or stop in the body.

Better yet, why not limit your meat portions and make fruits and vegetables the main course? Not only are they cancer fighters, veggies and fruits actually can help detoxify your body.

Susan Moores, R.D., is a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for The American Dietetic Association.