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Making Your Barbecue Cancer-Free

By: David A Fein, MD
Medical Director

It’s Spring and with the warming weather comes a change in the air: the smell of smoke from winter fireplaces gives way to the inviting aromas of backyard barbecues. Few things bring to mind the joys of summer better than a burger or steak sizzling on a hot outdoor grill.

Of course, I would never dream of anything so “un-American” as even suggesting that anyone limit their enjoyment of outdoor cooking on a grill. But ruining a prime piece of meat is not the only thing you need to worry about when you cooking at high temperature. There are some hidden dangers to your family’s health dancing in those flames. Cooked the wrong way, that steak, burger or chicken could increase their risk of cancer, heart disease and other health complications. Fortunately, a few simple steps can allow you to still turn out a grilled masterpiece that is both healthy and delicious.

The problems arise from two sources: the interaction of heat and meat and the burn products of the charcoal or gas. With the right techniques both of these dangers can be minimized.

Cooking any animal protein (including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish or whatever critter you choose to grill) at a high temperature causes the amino acids to react with creatine, a component of muscle, to form a group of cancer-causing chemicals known as Heterocyclic Amines (HCA). These compounds form just about any time meat is cooked at a temperature above 300 degrees F. The higher the cooking temperature and the longer the meat is cooked, the more HCA is formed. One gram of rare steak may have as little as 2.5 nanograms of HCA. Cook that same steak to well done and it will have 10 times more HCA (30 ng).

Chicken is even worse. A blackened grilled chicken breast may have as much as 480 ng of HCA, nearly 200 times as much as a steak, at least in the well done portion of the meat.

HCA’s have been linked to increased cancer risk. A 2002 study found a 70% increase in colon cancer risk in people who ate an average of 2 ounces of well-done meat a day. Another study in 1998 looked at 42,000 women in Iowa and found that those who liked their steaks, hamburgers and bacon very well-done were 4.62 times as likely to get breast cancer compared to women who liked their meat medium or rare. However, other studies have not found an increase in cancer related to over-cooked meats.

There may also be health risks related to the products of combustion from your grill. Incompletely burned wood or charcoal produces another class of chemicals known as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). These compounds are present in cigarette smoke and air pollution but the greatest level of exposure is usually from food. PAH’s form in the smoke from charcoal and when fat dripping onto grill causes flames to flare up.

Many commercially available charcoals contain additives to help light the charcoal and to keep it burning evening. These additives can form PAH when burned, as can the lighter fluid many of us use to start up a grill.

So, what can you do to minimize your exposure to these potentially dangerous chemicals without ruining a good cookout? Here are some suggestions that should help to substantially minimize the production of HCA and PAH without taking the fun and taste out of your barbecue:

  1. Use a gas grill. Gas burns more completely than charcoal and creates fewer PAH’s to coat the food.
  2. Use a natural charcoal without additives. Of course, there are many barbecue purists who would never even dream of using a gas grill. Many people think that the higher temperature and the charcoal itself add character to grilled meats that you can’t duplicate with gas grills. In that case, avoid the “self-lighting” charcoals and charcoals with additives. Avoid using lighter fluid. Start the fire with an electric heater or some kindling. Use a natural charcoal such as Noram de Mexico’s Sierra Madre 100 percent oak hardwood charcoal. This product does not contain any petroleum products and is sustainably harvested. It is available at Sam’s Clubs.3.. Use lower temperatures. The higher the temperature, the more HCA produced in the meat. Using a medium heat will help to avoid the charring that creates the highest levels of HCA. (Also note that Barbecue and Grilling are two different terms used very loosely by many. Most of us grill with the meat directly over high heat. In its correct usage, barbecue is done with indirect low heat for a long period of time and produces much less HCA in the final product)
  3. Don’t overcook. Rare or medium-rare is both tastier and safer. If you really need your meat well-done you can minimize the amount of time needed over the heat by cooking smaller pieces or even partially pre-cooking it in an oven or microwave. The less time spent over direct, high heat on the grill, the safer the meat.
  4. Marinate. Not only will you add more flavor and help to tenderize your meat (if the marinade contains an acid such as lemon or vinegar), the increase in moisture can reduce the formation of HCA’s as much as 90%. Even a quick marinade just before cooking can make a substantial difference.
  5. Flip often. As much as it will pain my cooking instructors, who always taught that real chefs only turn meat over once, more frequent turning helps to avoid over-heating and burning the outside. This will reduce HCA formation.
  6. Trim the fat. Flare-ups on the grill create PAH’s and the blackening of the meat that results is high in HCA’s. Use lean cuts of meat on the grill to minimize dripping fat.
  7. Move away from the flare-ups. When fat starts to drip, move the meat away from the flare-ups. Those high flames may look dramatic on TV cooking shows are not healthy cooking.
  8. Grill some veggies. Grills aren’t just for meat. All sorts of vegetables and fruits taste great when grilled. And, they don’t form toxic chemicals when exposed to high heat. Filling up with some great grilled veggies also helps to reduce your meat intake, which is even healthier.
  9. Have some wine. The anti-oxidants in wine may provide at least a partial antidote to the HCA and PAH. Open a good bottle of wine, let the steaks rest for a few minutes after you take them off the grill, invite some friends and family, and enjoy one of the best parts of Summer.

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