Summertime is nine days away and we all know what that means: grilling.
And while few things are better than gathering around the barbecue grill and watching its flames lick the meat, vegetables or even fruit into a tender deliciousness, there are health risks associated with the act of grilling.
Cancer health risks, to be precise.
Grilling protein-filled foods (e.g. meat, fish) creates two kinds of chemicals that potentially contribute to cancer, says CNN: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs form in meats cooked at high temperatures and have been shown to cause stomach, colon, liver and skin cancer in animals.
Accordingly, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says HCAs are "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens."
PAHs, on the other hand, form when meat juices drip onto hot surfaces (like coals) and create smoke. As the smoke swirls around the meat, it deposits carcinogens onto the soon-to-be-consumed food.
It's almost enough to make a person go vegetarian.
But Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society, tells CNN that there's not enough definitive research to justify putting the grill in the shed for good. The following tips are based on recommendations from her, Readers Digest and MSNBC.
– Clean the grill prior to cooking, in order to remove any charred debris – the charred (tasty) bits at the ends of barbecued meats contain HCAs in their purest form. Oil your grill to prevent those bits from sticking to your food.
– Also, don't eat those charred (tasty) bits at the ends of barbecued meats because they contain HCAs in their purest form.
– Precook food before grilling: For leaner cuts of meat, microwave it for a minute; thicker pieces should be zapped for 90 seconds. They can also be placed in the oven at a low temperature. Best option: Stick to leaner cuts of meat, and trim all visible fat.
– Make a bunch of tiny holes in a piece of aluminum foil, then place it on the grill under the meat. The fat will drop down through the holes and the foil will reduce the smoke that comes back up. You can also wrap your meat with perforated foil.
– Cook at a lower temperature.
– Flip the meat every minute.
– Don't cook too far past "well-done." The longer meat goes past the point of being thoroughly cooked, the more HCAs will form.
– Using a natural gas or propane grill can help reduce emitted pollution; if you're using a charcoal grill, use a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid. If you're using wood, use hardwoods like hickory and maple, which burn at lower temperatures.
– Use marinade: Ones that contain vinegar and lemon can prevent PAHs from sticking to the meat; ones that encourage charring (like barbecue sauce) should only be used in the final couple of minutes of grilling. A marinade mixture of olive oil, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice, salt and brown sugar was found to reduce carcinogens by more than 90 percent.
As far as the food you're actually grilling, the best options are fruits and vegetables, according to CNN and MSNBC. And the ones with the most HCAs? The top five, according to The Cancer Project:
– Grilled, skinless, boneless chicken breast, cooked to well-done
– Grill steak, cooked to well-done
– Barbecued pork
– Grilled salmon with skin
– Grilled hamburgers, cooked to well-done
All that said, keep it in perspective. Nutritionist Stephanie Meyers tells CNN: "Keep the risk in perspective. Grilled foods are not the greatest cancer risk – not wearing sunscreen while at the grill is a bigger deal. If you like to grill, put meat on the grill and use the safety tips."
Photo by Kid Missile via Flickr Creative Commons.