The big summer cookout — always a staple of the season’s holidays, like Memorial Day and July 4th — is a bit more complicated than it used to be. With sometimes confusing warnings about grilling and cancer risk in the media, and new studies linking colorectal and stomach cancers to diets high in red meat, it may be tempting just to chuck your barbecue and opt for salads. But there are ways to enjoy this age-old summer tradition while reducing your cancer risk.
Studies have provided mixed results on a direct link between grilling and cancer risk, but cooking red or white meats at high temperatures has been shown to form cancer-causing substances, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in smoke, can adhere to the meat on an open fire, and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form in meat when the proteins react to the intense heat of a grill. In lab experiments, both HCAs and PAHs were found to be mutagenic, meaning they could cause changes in DNA that might increase cancer risk. But there are methods to reduce these harmful carcinogens and enjoy an occasional grilled treat.
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Guidelines for safer grilling
1. Variety is the spice of life
Choosing the right meat or protein is just as important as selecting the right grilling technique. Instead of always cooking red meat, try throwing some fish and chicken onto the grill. Ramp up the flavors with spices, herbs, hot peppers and sauces. The AICR recommends eating no more than 12 to 18 ounces of red meat (cooked) per week.
2. Make a marvelous marinade
Marinating meat, poultry or fish for at least 30 minutes can reduce the formation of HCAs, even more so than lowering the cooking temperature, studies have shown. Marinades can incorporate vinegar, lemon juice and wine and be paired with oil, herbs and spices. A marinade of oil and sugar may create a protective barrier between the flames and the meat, according to the AICR. The marinade itself becomes seared by the heat, instead of the protein. The antioxidant properties of the coating may also prevent carcinogenic compounds from forming.
3. Prioritize precooking
Grill masters can decrease the amount of PAHs by reducing how long meat is exposed to a flame. Try precooking meat in the microwave, to reduce the time it’s exposed to high heat on the grill. But make sure to place partially cooked meat on the preheated grill immediately, to keep it safe from bacteria and prevent food-borne illness.
4. Turn down the temperature
Use a low flame while grilling to reduce both HCAs and PAHs. This will also help prevent the meat from burning and charring, which can cause more carcinogens. Be sure to cut off any remaining charred portions before eating.
The ACIR also recommends reducing flame flare-ups by trimming the visible fat off meat and moving coals to the side of the grill while cooking the meat in the center. This helps keep fat and juices away from the direct flames.
Continually turning meat over on a high heat source can substantially reduce HCA formation, compared with just leaving it on the heat, according to the National Cancer Institute.
5. Eat your veggies
Adding more vegetables to your next cookout will provide key nutrients and cancer-fighting antioxidants and can help you cut back on red and processed meats. Grilling vegetables and fruits produces no HCAs, so fill up the grill with onions, zucchini, mushrooms and other veggies. Fruit kabobs make a sweet addition to any menu, so try grilled peaches, watermelons or bananas as a side dish.
Plant-based burgers are another tasty nonmeat alternative, although watch out for higher sodium in some brands.
Editor's note: This story, originally published May 18, 2017, has been updated to include new information.
Kim Hayes is a senior health producer for AARP and has written on social justice issues for numerous organizations, including the National Organization for Women, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. She also served as editor of the Native American Report newsletter.