That crispy black char on grilled meats might taste good, but it isn’t good for you. That doesn’t mean you have to give up eating grilled foods.
Substances called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form on meats cooked at high temperatures such as grilling and barbecuing. These HCAs are formed when the extreme heat interacts with natural substances in meats such as creatinine, amino acids and sugars. The visual result is the black char. The HCAs in the char can bind directly to our DNA and cause the first step in the cancer development process.
HCAs have been linked to an increased risk for prostate, pancreatic and colon cancers.
More specifically, researchers at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California in 2011 studied more than 500 40- to 79-year-old men with newly diagnosed prostate cancer. They discovered that consumption of grilled and well-done hamburger and other red meats was associated with an increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
A 2009 study conducted at the University of Minnesota, which surveyed eating habits of more than 62,000 people, revealed that those who ate the largest number of servings of well-done bacon, sausage, hamburger or steak had a 70 percent higher risk for pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least amount.
In addition, a 2012 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University of more than 5,000 people found an association between eating well-cooked red meat and increased risk of colorectal polyps. Most physicians consider polyps to be pre-cancerous.
It’s not just the black char on red meat that contains harmful HCAs. Japanese researchers in 2010 found that HCA levels in pan-fried skin-on chicken and pan-fried salmon were significantly high.
In addition, in 2008, the Physicians for Responsible Medicine group funded research that looked at HCA formation in grilled chicken entrees at popular chain restaurants in California such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Chili’s, TGI Friday’s, Outback Steakhouse and Applebee’s. They found that all samples contained some HCAs and some samples at very high levels.
Here are four tips to grill food more healthfully.
1. Change the cooking method. For example, pre-cook meats or poultry in the microwave or oven so that it spends less time on the grill. Clean the grill so that char stuck on the grill grate doesn’t transfer to foods. Also, avoid eating the char. For example, if the skin of grilled chicken is charred, take the skin off and eat the meat underneath.
2. Choose lean meats or skinless poultry, or trim fat from red meat. Fat dripping on coals causes smoke and this smoke has HCAs that can deposit on foods. You can also wrap food in foil. Punch small holes in the bottom of the foil. This allows the fat to drip off during cooking but protects the meat or poultry from the smoke.
3. Marinate meat or poultry. Even marinating for as little as 30 minutes can help reduce HCA formation. In addition, lightly oil the grill. This keeps any black char from sticking to foods.
4. Change your menu. Consider fruits and vegetables. These foods don’t form HCAs when grilled. Plus, fresh produce provides many antioxidants and phytonutrients that can aid in cancer prevention. Zucchini squash, portabella mushrooms and sweet onions as well as fresh pineapple slices and halves of fresh peaches, mangoes or nectarines taste great on the grill. The sugars in the fruits especially will caramelize in the heat.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.