Here's How To Avoid Carcinogens When You're Grilling

Written by Will Clower, PhD

After our wicked cold winter this year, we’re oh-so-ready to just get outside. One of the iconic outdoor summer activities is grilling: Let The Flames Begin!

But we typically assume that foods from the backyard BBQ or the Fourth of July cook-out are bad for you. That conventional wisdom, however, doesn’t have to be true.

Sure, your annual Memorial Day burger and braut bonanza can pack on pounds and become bad for your health, even if you eat the nitrate-free versions. But the health of your summer grill has just as much to do with what you’re cooking, as it does with how you cook it.

Because how you grill can either decrease or increase the carcinogens you’re downing by the spork-full.

Why grilling (legitimately) gets a bad rap.

If you grill any meat at all at very high temperatures, it will naturally produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs, also found in cigarette smoke). This results from the combination of creatine (an amino acid) and sugars, which are both found naturally in meats.

We’ve known about these cancer-causing agents since 2002, and since then three more HCAs caused by grilling meat have been added to the list.

In fact, the total HCA content will depend on how well-done you take your meat, and also what kind you’re eating.

Some facts to keep in mind:

  • Well-done meat has 3.5 times more HCA than medium-rare meat.
  • When you compare different types of meats, sadly and tragically the highest concentration comes from bacon.
  • The second highest is from fried pork, followed by beef, and then chicken. (This particular study didn’t look at fish.)

Great news for vegetarians!

If you grill vegetables, you can feel free to singe away. Knock yourself out and flame it up. These don’t have the combination of creatine and sugar found in meats, nor does it have the fat drippings that smoke up into the other grilling-induced carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Think grilled pineapple. Seriously. Drizzle a bit of sesame oil over it beforehand. When it comes to your plate still hot from the grill, it’ll make you weep. A Tasty Solution for your meatsCutting back on your carcinogens, however, doesn’t mean that you have to cut back on flavor. And you don’t have to avoid grilling meats at all either. If you want to minimize your exposure, there are some very simple things you can do before, during, and after you grill.

Know that the marinade you use can make a huge difference in how healthy your food is.

The Cancer Research Center of Hawaii found that a teriyaki marinade reduced HCAs by 67%. A turmeric-garlic sauce reduced them by 50%! The key here is to use a thin, vinegar-based sauce, and leave out the sugar.

That’s because, when a thick concentrated commercial barbecue sauce with additive sugars was used, it actually tripled the number of HCAs! So, if you’re sitting around the house thinking that you just haven’t had enough carcinogens in your day, well, now you know how to fix that problem.

This research group also showed HCA reduction with marinades containing herbs and spices as well, notably those related from the mint family such as basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, and thyme. Most of these herbs are rich in three compounds — carnosic acid, carnosol and rosmarinic acid — all potent antioxidants.

Bottom line? Marinate.

Even briefly marinating foods is effective in reducing the amount of carcinogens — in some cases by as much as 92 to 99%. As a rule, use about one-half cup of marinade for every pound of food, although large pieces may need more to cover the food's surface adequately.

The amount of marinating time is up to you, because it only takes a few minutes to get the full cancer-preventing effect. Longer times will just add more flavor — good health has never been so tasty!

When you’re in mid-grill ...

First of all, don’t set your barbecue on “blow torch.” Start on a medium-high temp, and flip the meat often enough so that you don’t get charring. Another great technique, in case you have multiple burners within your grill, is to grill up each side real quick, and then turn off the burner that lies directly under the meat while keeping the other burners on. That basically transitions your grill into an oven.

During the grilling process, you can prevent the PAH carcinogens by:

  • Trim excess fat
  • Cover grill with punctured aluminum foil, to prevent drips from hitting the hot coals
  • Keep a squirt bottle around to control flare-ups

The post-grill feeding frenzy

Once you’ve cooked the food, there are just a couple of very commonsense things you can do to maximize flavor and minimize carcinogens.

First of all, don’t eat char. Think about it. Char. It’s just burnt meat. I know you like the idea of singe, but this part doesn’t even have any flavor. Don’t eat it ... cut it off! If you do this one simple thing, you’ll eliminate any HCAs that do happen to get through your marinade net.

So get outside and grill. With just a few rules to remember, you can add to the flavor and your health at the same time!

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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