If you live in the U.S., you’ve probably got a 3-day weekend coming up! For me, and many people I know, Labor Day is a perfect opportunity to bust out the grill – because what’s better than a flame-cooked cheeseburger (or Boca burger, if that’s your thing)? If you do decide to throw something on the grill, however, it’s important to make sure you do it safely.
When meat is cooked on a grill, chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form. These chemicals can lead to mutations in your DNA, which can then increase your chance of someday getting cancer. Obviously this is bad, so how to get rid of them?
With PAHs, it’s not so hard. Picture this: you have a nice juicy burger cooking on the grill. Grease drips down, and the flame below flares up. These meat juice-fueled flames contain PAHs, which then stick to your burger. In order to prevent this from happening, you need to stop the fat and juice from dripping.
HCAs form when creatinine (a chemical found in muscle), amino acids (the molecules that make up proteins), and sugars are brought together at high temperatures. These three ingredients are all found in meats, so in general, the hotter and longer you cook your meat (regardless of whether you’re grilling beef, pork, chicken, or fish), the more HCAs you’ll create.
So what can you do to reduce these chemicals?
- Cook your meat in the microwave for a little bit first. This reduces the amount of time the meat will be cooking on the grill, and it allows you to drain the juices before putting meat on the grill so less will drip down into the flames.
- While the meat is on the grill, flip it regularly – this lessens the amount of HCAs.
- Cook your meat at lower temperatures.
- Don’t eat the super-charred parts of the meat.
- Bring out the beer! One recent study by Portuguese researchers showed that marinating beef before pan-frying it reduced the amount of HCAs. The effect was most pronounced when using a marinade made from beer and herbs!
- Throw some other foods onto the grill – HCAs are generally only found in meats. If you’ve never tried grilled pineapple or grilled asparagus, you’re missing out!
So now that you know how to be safe, it’s time to get the party started! Go see what Bobby Flay is throwing on his grill, or get 101 easy ideas from the New York Times. Just keep the heat fast and low!
Cross and Sinha. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/em.20030/abstract
NCI, “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk.” http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cooked-meats