Noyes News and Events

April 22, 2017

Bring Out the Grill

Spring is here and summer is right around the corner so dust off the grill!  It is time for the great American cookout - whip up a salad, slice a melon, and throw some veggies and meat on the grill.  Sounds like a great idea, right?   Over the last few years, however, there have been some confusing health reports about grilling.  The concerns have centered around possible carcinogens in grilled meats.  Yet a common sense approach with a few safety precautions will keep you enjoying the BBQ.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), there is not enough evidence to show that grilled meat specifically increases the risk for cancers.  We know that cooking muscle meat such as beef, pork, fish or poultry at a high temperature like grilling (often done at over 300 degrees) creates chemical compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).  Both these chemicals can alter DNA and possibly lead to cancer.  That being said the studies showing exposure to PAHs and PCAs causing cancer were performed on rodents.  When fed a diet of HCAs or PHAs, the animals developed various types of cancer.  The National Cancer Institute reports the doses of HCAs and PHAs used in these studies, however, were very high – equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet.  Therefore, they caution against condemning grilling all together.

Nevertheless, researchers looking at people’s diets and consequent health issues, found that high consumption of well-done, fried, and barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreas, and prostate cancer.  In addition, evidence is clear that diets high in red and processed meats also contribute to colorectal cancer.  So while there is limited evidence that the compounds formed during grilling cause cancer, a combination of lots of red and processed meats (i.e. – burgers and hotdogs every night) plus grilling is most probably a bad combo pack.  

The great grilling conundrum comes down to this - it is what you choose to cook, not necessarily how you cook it that matters.  The Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the AICR, and the NCI recommend the following for summer grilling and optimal health:

  1. Grill less meat and more veggies and fruits.  Grill 4 -ounce size portions of meat (about the size of your palm) and try grilling peppers, asparagus, tomatoes, or even romaine!

  2. Go lean.  Grill chicken, turkey, or fish more often than red meats such as hamburgers or steaks and try to avoid processed meats such as sausage and hotdogs all together.

  3. Marinate meat.  Marinating meat before grilling can decrease the formation of HCAs.  

  4. Precook meat.  If you are grilling larger cuts, such as half chickens, reduce the time your meat is on the grill by partially cooking it in the microwave, oven, or stove first.

  5. Trim the fat. Trimming the fat off your meat reduces flare ups and charring.

  6. Cut meat into small pieces.  Try making kabobs alternating meat with lots of veggies.  The smaller pieces cook quickly, reducing the amount of time exposed to the high temperatures.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY.  If you have questions or suggestions for articles, contact Lorraine at 585-335-4327 or lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org.