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Outdoor Grilling Tips: How to Cut the Cancer Risk From Your Meat

Low and slow is the way to go

En español | Pity the poor backyard cook planning a big summer cookout.

Between the warnings about an increased cancer risk from grilled meat and the newest study linking colorectal cancer to diets high in beef and hot dogs, it's a wonder we all haven't scrapped our barbecues.

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Delicious steak - healthy grilling

Slow cook your meat on the grill to prevent cancer. — Photo by Richard Brocken/Redux

But don't despair. There are ways to reduce your cancer risk and still enjoy the pleasure of a grilled meal this summer.

The solution lies both in what you cook and how you cook it, says dietitian Alice Bender, a spokeswoman for the American Institute for Cancer Research.

If you are going to grill, beware of charring or burning whatever kind of meat you choose. It's not only bad for the meat, it's bad for your health, say the cancer prevention experts at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

High heat causes carcinogenic substances to form in meat, says Vicki Piper, a senior clinical dietitian at Anderson. "Low and slow is the way to go."

To keep your cookout healthy as well as happy, try these simple tips:

1. Use a marinade.

Marinating meat for even 30 minutes has a strong protective effect against cancer-causing compounds, possibly because the liquid helps prevent burning. Use vinegar or lemon juice in the marinade and herbs like rosemary, tarragon and sage for best effect.

2. Precook food.

Cook meat, poultry or fish for a couple minutes in the microwave, then finish them on the grill. Less grill time means less exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

3. Avoid flare-ups.

Trim excess fat so it doesn't drip and cause smoke and flare-ups that can singe or char the meat. Also — clean the grill before using to keep charred bits from sticking to your food.

Next: Why you may want to keep hot dogs off the grill. >>

4. Lower the temperature.

It's the high temps that trigger cancer-causing compounds called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) to form in meat. If you're grilling, increase the distance between the meat and the flames. For charcoal grills, use briquettes made from hardwood, like hickory and maple, because they burn at a lower temperature.

5. Skip the hot dogs and other processed meats.

Researchers don't know exactly what in processed meats leads to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. It may be the nitrites or nitrates added as preservatives, or something else that occurs during the processing. What this means is that they also can't say for sure if nitrite- and nitrate-free hot dogs are a safer choice.

6. Don't char or burn whatever kind of meat you're cooking.

High temperatures, whether from grilling, broiling or frying, cause chemicals to form in meat that can raise your cancer risk. These chemicals — HCAs — are considered carcinogens and have been linked to several kinds of cancer, including colorectal, bladder and pancreatic.

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Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.

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