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Grill Healthy This Summer

By Megan Tempest in Food on Jun 22, 2010 3:20PM

Before firing up the grill, consider that what meats you choose to cook, and how you cook them, may significantly affect your health. We know that one crispy, blackened hot dog is not going to pose significant damage, but there are notable health risks associated with grilled meats. Evidence suggests that the combination of meat and intense, direct heat results in the formation of compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs), that factor in to the development of cancer. HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and creatinine (a chemical found in muscle tissue, including that of red meat, poultry and fish) react at very high cooking temperatures. Researchers have identified 17 different HCAs that may increase our cancer risk by damaging the DNA of our genes. HCAs are most strongly linked to colon and stomach cancer.

According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, what you grill matters. Due to the strong correlation between processed meat and colorectal cancer, the AIRC recommends avoiding processed meats altogether. Processed meats are, in general, those which have been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemical preservatives. Types of processed meats commonly thrown on the grill include sausage, bratwurst, kielbasa, and hot dogs.

Along with avoiding process meat, follow these tips from the AIRC to reduce your grilling risk:

  • Limit portion sizes and cut smaller pieces to shorten cook time - foods cooked a long time (“well-done” instead of “medium”) will form slightly more HCAs.
  • Choose leaner cuts to prevent dripping fat from causing flare-ups, which can deposit cancer-causing compounds on the meat.
  • Marinate your meat or fish-studies have shown that marinating your meat before grilling can decrease HCA formation by up to 96 percent.
  • Flip meat frequently to reduce carcinogens that may arise.
  • Reduce the heat-cooking at slightly lower temperatures is enough to substantially reduce HCA formation. Frying, broiling, and barbecuing produce the largest amounts of HCAs because the meats are cooked at very high temperatures. One study showed a threefold increase in the content of HCAs when the cooking temperature was increased from 200° to 250°C (392° to 482°F).
  • Partially cook your meat in the microwave before grilling - doing so may reduce levels of HCAs by removing the precursors to their formation. One study suggests meats that were microwaved for 2 minutes prior to cooking had a 90-percent decrease in HCA content.

Finally, feel free to enjoy as much grilled fruit and vegetables as your heart desires. There is nothing like grilled pineapple! The process of grilling plant-based foods does not produce any HCAs and these foods are strongly associated with reduced cancer risk.