Fourth of July is next weekend and many Americans with big suburban backyards have likely already begun stocking up on bags of charcoal in preparation for the big cookout. But, should you be worried about ingesting grilled foods this upcoming holiday weekend?
The truth is some foods just taste better grilled, including Romaine lettuce, pineapple, plantains, and endives. Still, you've probably heard at least once before that grilling foods over a bed of charcoal could increase your risk of unfavorable health outcomes, including cancer.
The good news? Current research suggests this may only apply to meat—not fruits or vegetables. Charcoal by itself isn't carcinogenic, it's cooking foods with charcoal that's the issue. When grilling food, charcoal helps to create very high temperatures—that's risk number one. Risk number two is that charcoal creates a lot of smoke. Together, these can risks can produce carcinogenic effects, but specifically when cooking meat.
According to The National Cancer Institute, when muscle meat such as beef, pork, fish, or poultry is cooked using high-temperature methods including pan-frying or grilling, two chemicals form called Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In lab experiments, these chemicals have been shown to be mutagenic, which means they can cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.
So the charred exterior of a grilled chicken drumstick indicates that HCAs have formed. The chemical forms as a result of high temperatures causing amino acids in meat to react with the creatine (an amino acid) in meat. Meat and seafood are the only foods that naturally contain creatine, which is why grilled fruits and vegetables are generally considered safe to consume.
When the juice from meat drips onto the coals and other hot metal surfaces, it can cause flames and smoke, which causes PAHs to form. This chemical sticks to cooked meat. Keep in mind, that people are regularly exposed to PAHs via the inhalation of motor vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, or wood smoke, for example.
As the National Cancer Institute notes, several epidemiologic studies have lead researchers to find that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.
Here are four ways you can reduce your risk of exposure to both chemicals.
Turn the meat often.
Routinely turning meat as it sits above an open flame may help to reduce HCA formation compared with meat that isn't flipped as often while on the grill. Also, try grilling at lower temperatures if possible to avoid charring.
Remove charred portions of meat.
If charring does occur, try and pick off the charred parts of meat to reduce your exposure to HCAs. Also, avoid using gravy that's made from meat drippings to reduce PAH exposure.
Grill fish instead of red meat.
Red meat and processed meats like hot dogs are high in fat which means they will drip onto the coals more, which increases your risk of PAH exposure. Not to mention, these meats require longer grilling times than lean meats such as chicken, turkey, and even fish. While this doesn't completely eliminate your risk of HCA exposure, it definitely reduces it.
Grill more fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables don't contain creatine, therefore, you don't have to worry about HCAs or PAHs!
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