How to Make Grilling Safer

When the dog days hit Boston, Stephanie Meyers starts cooking alfresco to keep things cool indoors.

Meyers grills-a lot-and as a nutritionist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she's well aware that charring meat over an open flame produces cancer-causing substances (known as carcinogens) that may be harmful when eaten. So to make grilling healthier, she sticks to the same advice she gives her patients.

"I follow my own tips and grill a lot of veggies," she says. "I've been known to put all kinds of things on the grill just to see what happens." (She's not kidding: Plums, kale, and Swiss chard are among some of her favorite past experiments.)

Unlike meat, vegetables don't create carcinogens when they char. But the small cancer risk associated with grilling meat isn't so great that you need to forgo hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks altogether. Taking a few precautions while barbecuing will minimize the health risks without sacrificing that delicious charcoal taste, experts say.

Grilling protein-filled foods such as meat 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 produce these chemicals as well, those charred bits at the edges of barbecued meat contain HCAs in their purest state. HCAs, which are also found in cigarette smoke, have been shown to cause cancer in organs including the stomach, colon, liver, and skin-but only in animal studies.

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."

PAHs, the second type of compound, are formed when juices from meat drip onto coals or other hot surfaces and create smoke. The smoke contains these carcinogens, which are deposited onto the surface of meat as it swirls around the food.

Colleen Doyle, the director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society, says the risks these two substances pose shouldn't make die-hard grillers put away their oversized utensils for good. "From our perspective, there has not been enough definitive research that would cause us to tell people not to grill at all," she says.

But there are ways to minimize your exposure to carcinogens when grilling, Doyle adds. She recommends cleaning the grill prior to cooking, which will remove any charred debris that may stick to food. And if some parts of the meat you're cooking get badly charred, cut those pieces off.

Next Page: To reduce PAHs, try precooking

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