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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Safe Summer Grilling Tips


January 16, 2013


By Stephanie Meyers, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Firing up the barbecue for a festive summer meal? Wondering if grilling foods increases cancer risk?

Rest assured. Follow these simple safety tips when grilling to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and keep your barbecue fired up this season.

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Do Cancer-Causing Chemicals Form in the Grilling Process?

Research has found that two harmful chemicals can form during the grilling process.

  • Heterocyclic amines form when protein (amino acids and creatine) found in meats are cooked over high heat, such as grilling or broiling.

 

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) form when fat and juices from meat drip down to the heat source of the grill, resulting in smoke. The smoke contains PAHs. As the smoke rises up past the food, the PAH compounds can be deposited on the surface of the meat.

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How Strong Is the Cancer-Grilling Link?

The World Cancer Research Fund recently released their expert review "Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective." The report concluded that there was little evidence to connect grilled foods to cancer risk, yet they recommended that people avoid eating burned or charred foods frequently or in large quantities.

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Four Steps to Grilling Safely

Follow the safety tips below and grill with confidence.

Step One – Make veggies the main attraction

  • Cook kebabs — skewers of colorful bell peppers, onions and small pieces of chicken or lean meat. Smaller pieces of meat take less time on the grill. Kebabs are a great way to increase vegetable intake. Add fruit (pineapple, papaya and/or mango) to skewers, too.

Step Two – If you're grilling meat, prep it first

  • Trim all visible fat. If you're grilling chicken, remove the skin before cooking. Visible fat chars easily, especially when flames "lick" the food.

 

  • Marinate fish and chicken. Marinades cut down on the smoke that sticks to the surface of the meat. Thin marinades are best, especially if they contain vinegar and/or lemon. Thicker, commercially prepared marinades have more of a tendency to "char," possibly increasing exposure to carcinogenic compounds. If you're using a marinade that contains honey, sugar or tomato product, apply it in the last minute or two of grilling to avoid burning/charring.

Step Three – Limit the time food is on the grill

  • Precook meat in the microwave on "high" for 60 to 90 seconds, then discard the juices. Less juice will drip down to the heat source, which is the source of PAHs. You'll also cut down on cooking time, thereby reducing potential exposure to chemicals formed in grilling process. Don't grill frozen meat; thaw it first.

Step Four – Keep "smoke" to a minimum because that's where PAHs are concentrated

  • Avoid "smashing" or flattening burgers while they are cooking on the grill. This leads to higher levels of dripping juices and more unwanted smoke.

 

  • Grill burgers at a lower heat and flip them once per minute until cooked. Research at Livermore National Lab in California determined that frequent flipping prevents juices from dripping down to the heat surface leading to less smoke.

 

  • Food should be at least six inches from the heat source — more if possible.

 

  • Grill fish and chicken on top of a piece of aluminum foil that has a few small holes. This barrier will keep juices from dripping down and creating additional smoke.

 

  • Avoid charring or overcooking meats. Cut off and throw away any parts that become charred.

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The Bottom Line

The risk of cancer from grilling is minimal. Grilling foods, especially if you follow the recommended tips, is safe in moderation. Remember, a diet rich in plant-based foods, such as vegetables and fruits, helps protect against cancer. So balance the grilled foods you eat with plenty of fresh vegetables to dramatically reduce your cancer risk.

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Stephanie Meyers, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. received her master's degree in nutrition and health promotion from Simmons College, Boston. She is a senior clinical nutritionist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital.

 

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