Grilling meat, chicken and fish creates two kinds of chemical compounds that may contribute to cancer: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
HCAs form in meat when it's cooked at a high temperature. While frying and broiling also produce these chemicals, those charred bits at the edges of barbecued meat contain HCAs in their purest state. HCAs have been shown in animal studies to cause cancer in the stomach, colon, liver, and skin. It's unclear whether HCAs cause the same problems in people. Still, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that the chemicals are "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens." HCAs are also found in cigarette smoke.
PAHs are formed when juices from meat drip onto coals or other hot surfaces and create smoke. As the smoke swirls around the food, the carcinogens are deposited onto the surface of the meat.
Nobody wants to give up the grill altogether, so what can you do? Here are 8 ways to reduce the chances of producing these two types of harmful chemicals so you can still enjoy your summer BBQs.
Clean The Grill
Cleaning off any leftover charred pieces of food will prevent them from sticking to the food that you are about to prepare. Remove any charred areas on the meat you cook.
Marinate The Meat
Whatever meat you choose, use a marinade made with vinegar or lemon to act as an "invisible shield" that changes the acidity of the meat and prevents PAHs from sticking. Keep the meat marinating in the fridge while you prepare the sides. Marinating meat has also been shown to reduce the formation of HCAs. Precisely why marinades are protective is still under investigation: some evidence points to the acids (vinegar and citrus) or the antioxidant content. Even just 30 minutes in the marinade can help.
Partially Precook Meat
You can partially precook meat in the oven or stove to help reduce the amount of time the meat sits exposed to high heat on the grill and to allow some juices to flow out that might otherwise leak onto the grill and cause flames.
Cook Slow And On Low Heat
To reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs that end up in and on the meat and to keep burning and charring to a minimum, slow down the cooking time with a low flame.
Cut The Fat
Before the meat is placed on the grill, cut off any visible fat to reduce the flare-ups associated with fat dripping on the flames. You can also cook the meat in the center of the grill and move the coals (if you are using a charcoal grill) to the side to avoid the fat dripping on the coals and causing a flare-up.
Hold The BBQ Sauce
Sugary marinades such as barbecue sauce encourage charring and should be used only during the last one to two minutes on the grill. Or add the BBQ sauce after the meat is removed from the grill.
Wrap It Up
Cooking chicken or fish on or in aluminum foil will reduce the smoke produced by dripping juices. If you prefer, wrap in parchment paper first, then wrap in aluminum foil to avoid having the aluminum come in contact with the food.
Choose Your Grill Carefully
Cooking over natural gas or propane grills can reduce the pollution emitted. Measurements performed by the Department of Energy show that grilling with gas for an hour creates 5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide, while using charcoal to grill releases 11 pounds of carbon dioxide into the environment every hour. While most charcoal you purchase at supermarkets is loaded with chemicals and creates carbon dioxide as it is burned, grilling with real, pure charcoal, known as lump charcoal, does not produce as many emissions. Lump charcoal can be hard to find, but is becoming more readily available as people become more environmentally aware. You may have luck finding lump charcoal at hardware stores, natural food stores, or stores that specialize in grilling equipment. If you own a charcoal grill, using a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid will also keep you from inhaling harmful chemicals.
What about grilling vegetables and fruit?
Unlike in beef, poultry, pork and fish, HCAs and PAHs are not formed when you cook vegetables and fruit on the grill. Plant foods contain a variety of naturally occurring compounds called phytochemicals, many of which provide their own anti-cancer protection.