How to Avoid Cancer-Causing Chemicals When You Grill


A few weeks ago I wrote an article exposing a common cancer-causing ingredient called carrageenan that is found it many dairy and non-dairy products, even organic varieties. Recently, my wonderful mother was diagnosed with cancer, so lately I have taken a special interest in learning not only about which foods to avoid and which to consume more of for the prevention and treatment of cancer, but also about how best to prepare foods.

I can remember as a child having barbecue for lunch one hot summer day after a horseshow with my late father, a radiation oncologist. As we were finishing up our chopped beef sandwiches, I listened to him explain how the smoky, succulent meal we were enjoying can, with high consumption, cause prostate, colorectal and pancreatic cancers. He used a lot of polysyllabic, scientific words that, frankly, went it one ear and out the other, but from that day on, this Texan could never regard a rack of mouth-watering ribs the same way. I also made it my mission to warn all my BBQ-loving, sticky-fingered cowpoke friends about the dangers lurking within their beloved brisket. They didn’t listen.

I am all for an “everything in moderation” approach to food. Well, for the most part. I think we can all agree that donuts, soft drinks, barbecue, and candy bars fall into the “in moderation” category; if we want to feel and look our best, burn fat, preserve our bone density, build muscle, strengthen our immune system, as well as prevent and fight disease, it’s imperative that we carefully select and properly prepare our foods the majority of the time. Unless you are a vegetarian, this means buying organic meat and fish whenever possible to avoid pesticides and harmful additives, and then carefully choosing your cooking method.

Cancer-causing substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when meat is cooked under high temperatures, as happens during smoking over an open flame or by grilling. The latter, HCAs, are made when creatine, creatinine, and amino acids, which are both found in meat, react together with heat. They are genotoxic, meaning that they work at the DNA level causing mutations, deletions, and insertions. As you probably know, DNA damage can lead to cancer as cells receive wrong instructions and begin to multiply out of control.

PAHs include over 100 different compounds formed by the incomplete burning of organic matter, such as coal, gas, food, etc. at temperatures over 392 F. Of major concern regarding the PAHs we consume in our food is the ability of the reactive metabolites, such as epoxides and dihydrodiols, to bind to cellular proteins and DNA. The resulting biochemical disruptions and cell damage lead to mutations, developmental malformations, tumors, and cancer. Your best bet for avoiding these carcinogens is to abstain from cooked meat altogether. But if you’re a barbecue-loving, steak-craving southerner like myself, you’re probably curious to know a few alternatives to becoming completely herbivorous…

Cook with Less Heat

Temperature and cooking duration are the most important factors when it comes forming dangerous HCAs and PAHs. Basically, the hotter and longer a meat is cooked, the more HCAs and PAHs there will be; direct heat methods like frying and grilling produce more than indirect heat methods such as stewing, steaming, or poaching.

An article in Men’s Journal[1] recommends using “lower-temperature cooking methods … whenever possible and to limit intake of pan-fried red meat, in particular hamburger, to less than once a week. And when you do pan-fry it, turn down the stove.”

Mariana Stern, lead researcher and a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine told the magazine:

“Meat has to be cooked to an internal temperature of 158 Fahrenheit in order to prevent growth of harmful bacteria, but if you heat the pan to 160 F instead of a much hotter 250 F, it extends cooking time by only two minutes and can dramatically reduce the amount of carcinogens that form.”[2]

When You Grill…

There are a few things you can do when you grill to cut down on the formation of HCAs and PHAs. One is thawing your meat in your refrigerator before you cook it. Cooking frozen meat overexposes the surfaces to high temperatures while the inside warms up slowly.

Another thing you can do before you cook your meat is marinate it. Kansas State University researchers marinated steaks in three different mixtures of oil, vinegar, and herbs and spices. After grilling, carcinogens in the marinated steaks were cut by 57 to 88 percent. The reason it works is not so clear, but it’s hypothesized that the marinade may create a protective barrier between the meat’s proteins and the heat of the grill. Or the antioxidants in the marinade may combat the carcinogens directly.[3]

A marinade containing rosemary and thyme had the greatest effect on reducing HCAs, but two other marinades with different herbs seasonings were tested and found to be almost as effective. The rosemary/thyme marinade also contained pepper, salt, and allspice. Another marinade included oregano, thyme, garlic and onion. A third marinade had oregano, garlic, basil, onion and parsley.[4]

After your meat has marinated a while, microwave it. Microwaving meat for two minutes has been shown to decrease HCAs by 90%. Just be sure to throw out the juice, which is where the HCAs hide.[5]

In addition to thawing, marinating, and microwaving your meat before throwing it on the grill, cube or slice it into small segments to expedite the cooking time. While you’re doing this, you can also take some time to trim the fat. HCAs and PAHs are primarily formed when fats are heated to high temperatures or fall into the flames and create smoke, so trimming off as much fat as you can is definitely advantageous.

My favorite bites of grilled meat are the crispy ones that have a bit of char on them – but, sadly for me, eating them is not advisable! Try to avoid charring your meat as much as possible as these pieces will contain the most cancer-causing compounds. And if you’re served a piece of meat that’s been blackened with char, resist the temptation to eat it. Also, use a gas grill if you can as they cook at lower temperatures than charcoal or wood fires. Oh, and flip the meat frequently!

Next, throw some fruit and veggies on the grill as well! According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, these foods don’t form HCAs and they “also supply a whole range of cancer-fighting nutrients and phytochemicals. In fact, the natural phytochemicals in vegetables stimulate enzymes that can convert HCAs to an inactive, stable form that is easily eliminated from the body.”[6] But don’t overcook the produce. The longer fruits and vegetables cook, the more nutrients like cancer-preventing vitamin C break down.

Last but not least, clean your grill when you’re done cooking. Not all carcinogen-filled char makes it to your plate; much of it remains on your grill, exposing you to more HCAs and PAH’s unless you thoroughly clean it before using it next.

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[1] (accessed July 30, 2014)

[2] Ibid.

[3] (accessed July 30, 2014)

[4] Ibid.

[5] (accessed July 30, 2014)

[6] (accessed July 30, 2014)