Always a staple of Memorial Day weekend, the big summer cookout is a bit more complicated than it used to be.
With warnings in the media about increased cancer risk from grilling, and studies linking colorectal cancer to diets high in red meat, it may be tempting just to chuck your barbecue into the trash. But there are ways to enjoy this age-old summer tradition while still reducing your cancer risk.
What you grill is more important than how you grill it, say experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). While there is no clear research showing a link between grilling and cancer risk, cooking meats at high temperatures can lead to two main types of potential carcinogens:
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in smoke, can adhere to the meat on an open fire.
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form in meat when the proteins react to the intense heat of the grill.
“Cooking meat at a high temperature, like grilling, creates substances that have the potential to cause changes in DNA that may lead to cancer,” says Alice Bender MS, RDN, head of Nutrition Programs at AICR. “This is interesting research; yet what matters the most is what you cook, not how you cook it.”
Veggies Are the New Meat
AICR recommends limiting red meat to no more than 18 ounces of cooked meat per week and avoiding hot dogs and other processed meats. Instead, throw more veggies onto the grill.
“Grilled vegetables and fruits don’t form HCAs — and they’re delicious — so you have another good reason to grill more plant foods, cut the hot dogs and limit the size of your burger,” says Bender.
Guidelines for Safer Grilling
But if grilled burgers are a family tradition you just can’t give up, AICR offers tips on how to reduce the risks.
1. Shorten Grilling Time. For larger cuts of meat, reduce the time they’re exposed to the flames by first partially cooking them in a microwave oven or stove. The meat should be immediately placed on a preheated grill to keep it safe from bacteria. Cutting meat into smaller portions also reduces cooking time.
2. Trim the Fat. Trimming the fat off your meat reduces flare-ups and charring.
3. Move to the Center. Cook your meat in the center of the grill while moving coals to the outside, and make sure to flip it frequently.
4. Add some marinade. Marinating not only flavors and preserves grilled food, it can reduce the formation of cancer-causing substances when grilling, according to AICR. But be sure to discard the marinade after using it to soak the meat to avoid food poisoning.