The question the American Institute for Cancer Research gets most often at this time of the year is, “How can I make my backyard grilling healthier?”
“Two aspects of the traditional American cookout, what you grill and how you grill it, can potentially raise cancer risk,” said AICR dietitian Alice Bender. “Diets that feature big portions of red and processed meat have been shown to make colorectal cancer more likely. Evidence that grilling itself is a risk factor is less strong, but it only makes sense to take some easy cancer-protective precautions.”
Bender noted that when any kind of meat, poultry or fish is cooked at high temperatures, especially when well-done or charred, cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form. These substances can theoretically damage DNA in ways that make cancer more likely.
“The good news is that there are four simple strategies you can use to make allowances, manage risks, and grill more safely,” Bender said.
- Focus first on grilling colorful vegetables and fruits, and cut back on the amount of red and processed meat on your cookout menu. Plant foods contain a variety of naturally occurring compounds called phytochemicals, many of which provide their own anticancer protection.
- If you choose to grill meat, mix it up: Try chicken or fish instead of sticking with burgers and hot dogs. Whatever meat you choose, start by mixing up a marinade with some of your favorite herbs along with vinegar or lemon juice. Keep the meat marinating in the fridge while you prepare the sides. Marinating meat has been shown to reduce the formation of HCAs. Precisely why marinades are protective is still under investigation; some evidence points to the acids (vinegar and citrus) or antioxidant content. Even just 30 minutes in the marinade can help.
- Partially precook. You can do this in the microwave, oven or stove to help reduce the amount of time the meat sits on the grill exposed to high heat. To ensure safe food handling, just be sure to put the partially cooked meat on the preheated grill immediately to complete cooking.
- Go slow and low. To reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs that end up in, and on, the meat, slow down the cooking time with a low flame and keep burning and charring to a minimum.