I can imagine throngs of men upon hearing the news, throwing their hands up in the air and lamenting to their wives: “Is there anything I can do that won’t kill me these days?”
I am, of course, referring to the news that grilling meat—a long-beloved summer tradition in many cultures—introduces carcinogens into the body and can contribute to causing cancer.
But let’s set the record straight. It’s not grilling, necessarily, it’s burnt protein. When organic matter burns, the amino acids and sugars inside of the matter is converted into a compound called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). The fact that HCAs cause cancer isn’t anything new to us. It’s one of the byproducts of smoking cigarettes and one of the reasons smokers get lung cancer. The fact that burning meat releases HCAs isn’t really anything new either! The connection was no doubt made long ago, but we’ve only started talking about it relatively recently.
Nevertheless, it’s real, but there are things we can do to lower or even eliminate the risk without losing one of our
Some interesting info
- Vegetables that are burnt or have grill marks on them do not pose the same risk as they don’t contain the same (or any) amino acids and sugars as meat.
- Bacon is the highest-risk meat for grilling, containing and releasing the most carcinogens. After that is regular pork, then beef and chicken.
- Well done meat has more than three times the HCAs as medium rare meat. This is good news for steak purists, but doesn’t help much when it comes to poultry or pork, where it’s highly recommended you cook it all the way through.
- Adding a sugary marinade to your meat can increase the HCAs released by as much as 300 percent.
Reducing the risk
This might come as a surprise, but marinating your meat can REALLY help. Studies have shown that a teriyaki marinade reduces HCAs by 67 percent and a turmeric-vinegar marinade reduces them by 50 percent.
Naturally, as sugars are part of the problem, a sugary marinade makes matters worse. And it’s shocking how much sugar your standard BBQ sauce has in it. Best to stick with a vinegar-based marinade, or some people use a lemon-based marinade as well, which goes well with fish anyway.
Beyond that, don’t skimp on the herbs. Many herbs offer cancer-fighting properties, which can help offset the risk of grilling your meat. Some useful (and tasty) herbs include: rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, basil and marjoram.
The greatest grilling method
See the image at the top of this article for a diagram. Essentially, there’s a way to grill that reduces your risk of releasing HCAs. The first step is to rid your grilling soul with the notion that all grilled meat has to have black cross-marks on it.
Here’s how it works:
- Segment your grill into three sections.
- In the first section (either extreme left or extreme right), do not light the burners.
- In the middle section, put the burners on medium heat.
- In the third section (either extreme left or extreme right depending on which side of your grill has NO heat), crank it up to the maximum heat.
- Grill all of your meat on the first section, where there is no direct heat. This enables the slats to heat up enough to cook the meat, but not enough to char it. Turn your meat often enough that grill marks don’t have time to form.
Right before eating
The final step? If there’s any char (the burned, black bits) on the meat, simply cut that portion off and eat the rest. This alone will reduce the HCAs to very manageable levels. You’ll realize char doesn’t even have any flavor to begin with, so why feel like you’re missing out?
If you’ve used a good marinade and slow-cooked your meat on the cooler side of the grill, your dinner should be just as delicious as if you slapped a slab of meat on a red-hot grill for a quick sear and marking. There’s no reason to worry that you can’t enjoy your summer because of grilling and carcinogens. Just do things only slightly differently and carry on a healthier and more conscientious person!