Are grilled foods toxic?
True or False: Marinating meat, poultry and fish before grilling reduces more than 90 percent of cancer-causing compounds. You’ll get the answer below.
Grilling season is upon us, and that’s a good thing. Grilling causes less mess in the kitchen and is a healthy, lower-fat way to prepare many foods.
Depending on how and what you grill, it can pose hidden dangers: increased risk of cancer, heart disease and other health complications.
Health problems arise from two sources: the interaction of heat and meat and the burn products of charcoal and gas.
- Cooking animal protein – beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish – at high temperatures produce cancer-causing Heterocyclic Amines (HCA). Whenever meat is cooked at a temperature above 300 degrees, amino acids and creatine in the meat form HCA. The higher the cooking temperature and the longer the meat is cooked, the more HCA.
- Combustion in your grill forms dangerous compounds called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). Burning wood or charcoal produces PAH, a compound present in cigarette smoke and air pollution. However, the greatest level of exposure is usually from food. PAHs form in charcoal smoke and when fat dripping causes flames to flare up.
You can substantially minimize the production of HCA and PAH without taking the fun and taste out of grilling:
- Use a gas grill. Gas burns more completely than charcoal and coats the food with fewer PAH. Charcoal grills emit more carbon monoxide, particulate matter and soot into the atmosphere. An electric grill is another great option that can be used indoors.
- Go natural. Some chefs prefer charcoal for the flavor. If you must have charcoal, use a natural lump charcoal without additives and skip the lighter fluid. You’ll find natural lump charcoal in many stores. Start a charcoal fire with a chimney starter or kindling, not lighter fluid.
- Marinate meat, poultry and fish. Marinating infuses food with flavor and inhibits potentially carcinogenic HCAs from forming while grilling poultry, meat and fish. Even a quick marinade before grilling can substantially reduce HCA.
- Don’t overcook. Medium or medium-rare is tastier and safer. If you like well-done meat, cook using smaller pieces or partially pre-cook larger pieces in an oven or microwave to shorten grilling time. The less time spent over direct high heat, the safer the meat.
- Tame the flames. Flare-ups from dripping fat cause carcinogenic PAHs to form on your food. Flames may char the outside of food before the inside has thoroughly cooked. Meat licked by flames also tastes “off.” To reduce flare-ups, select lean cuts of meat, trim excess fat and remove poultry skin. When fat starts to drip, move the meat away from the flare-ups. Finally, keep a squirt bottle of water near the grill to quickly douse any flare-ups.
- Grill veggies and fruit. Most vegetables and fruits taste great when grilled — and they don’t form toxic chemicals when exposed to high heat. Fill up on healthy, delicious grilled fruits and veggies to cut back on meat.
- Have some wine. The antioxidants in wine provide a partial antidote to the HCA and PAH. Open a good bottle of wine, let the steaks rest for a few minutes after taking them off the grill and enjoy a fantastic meal with your family and friends!
Back to the original question: It’s true. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), marinating can reduce HCA formation by as much as 92- 99 percent.
About the Author
Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.