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6 steps to healthier grilling

Although your backyard barbecue can be a convenient way to cook—and there’s nothing like that distinctive smoky taste—scientists have raised concerns about a possible cancer risk linked to grilled meats.

Research shows that when foods like beef, chicken, pork and even fish are cooked at high temperatures—by frying, broiling or grilling—chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form. Researchers have identified 17 HCAs that may pose a cancer risk.

Baking and oven roasting use lower temperatures, producing fewer HCAs, and stewing, boiling and poaching create negligible amounts of the chemicals.

One study showed that HCA content tripled when the cooking temperature was increased by less than 100 degrees from 392° F to 482° F. A gas grill set on high can reach 640° F. Plus, when grilling, another type of carcinogenic chemical, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), is created when the meats’ fat drips onto the hot coals or heating element. PAHs are deposited back onto your food by smoke and flare-ups.

A safer way to grill

What to do? Don’t banish the barbecue—you can have your meat and grill it, too! Try these tips to reduce your risk:

  • Precook meats in the oven or microwave. One study showed that microwaving meat for two minutes before grilling reduced the HCA content by 90 percent. Pouring off the liquid that formed during microwaving further decreased HCAs.
  • Marinate meat before grilling. A marinade can reduce HCAs by as much as 99 percent. Experts suspect a marinade may act as a barrier against the heat or the typical marinade ingredients of olive oil, vinegar, citrus juice, herbs and spices may help prevent HCA formation.
  • Create a barrier between the heat source and your food. Line the grill with aluminum foil, poking small holes in the foil so some fat can drain away. Or increase the space between the charcoal and food to minimize charring.
  • Trim away fat before grilling. Cut away visible fat from meats and remove chicken’s skin to reduce the amount of fat dripping into the flames. Remove any burnt or charred portions before eating.
  • Eat less meat. Many studies have linked high red-meat consumption with increased cancer incidence. Also, grilled chicken breast contains high levels of HCAs. Tofu or veggie burgers are a healthier choice and produce few, if any, HCAs or PAHs.
  • Grill more vegetables or fruits. These foods don’t produce HCAs. Try grilled portobello mushrooms, onions, green and red bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, potatoes, papaya, pineapple and mango. Alternate small pieces of meat with vegetables or fruit on skewers to maximize flavor and minimize harmful chemicals.