Healthy Grilling This Holiday

Cancer causing compounds produced from grilling fatty meats and fish

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) As you make plans for your Memorial Day barbecue, maybe you'll want to grill something other than the usual hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and steaks. Instead, if you want to keep this a really healthy holiday, consider grilling some veggies.

It's been known for a while now that grilling or cooking meats at high temperatures produces nasty, cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

These along with another chemical called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when beef, pork, fish and poultry are pan fried or grilled directly over an open flame.

"Try grilling veggies on Memorial Day."

And while there's nothing much better than a hamburger fresh off the grill, laboratory experiments have found that HCAs and PAHs can cause changes in the DNA, which in turn increase cancer risks. Ugh.

Animal studies have shown these chemicals to increase the risks of all types of cancer, including breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, prostate and others. However, it's not known exactly what level of these chemicals is dangerous to humans.

Research is currently under way in the United States investigating the association between meat intake, various meat cooking methods and cancer risk.

Quick science lesson: HCAs result when the amino acids, sugars and creatine (found in muscle) all react to high temperatures. 

PAHs come into the picture when fat and juices drip onto the fire, causing flames. The PAHs stick to the meat that's exposed to the flame. Same thing happens when meats are smoked.

Now the longer meats are cooked, the higher the concentrations of these chemicals. So grilled or barbecued chicken and steak that's well done are loaded with HCAs.  

What's a backyard chef to do? Here are some ideas:

  • Assemble and grill shish kabobs of fresh vegetables, which don't produce these chemicals.
  • Consider grilling corn on the cob or shiitake mushrooms.
  • Use the microwave to partially cook the meats you'll be grilling.
  • Avoid cooking over direct flames, if possible.
  • Keep turning the items.
  • Avoid charring the meat.
  • Don't use gravies made from meat juices.

These tips, along with adding plenty of vegetables to your menu, will make your cookout memorably delicious. Then top off your barbecue with slices of watermelon for dessert and end the evening with a watermelon seed spitting contest!

Happy Memorial Day!

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 24, 2012
Last Updated:
August 10, 2012