One of the greatest pleasures of warm summer weather is the backyard barbecue. The fresh air, the companionship, the smell of food on the grill and the delicious meal at the end is an experience no one should miss.
Unfortunately, research shows that cooking meat over an open flame can create toxins that might cause cancer. You might think this means from now on, summer barbecues can only be a happy memory – don’t despair. You can avoid carcinogens and still enjoy your favorite summer activity.
Studies show that people who eat lots of well done, fried and barbecued meats have a high risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer. Nobody is sure why that is. However, it could have to do with the fact that cooking meat using these methods creates toxins known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
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HCAs form when meat is cooked at high temperatures, causing chemical reactions in amino acids, sugars and creatine (which is found in muscle). PAHs are created when fats and juices drip on a fire and create flames. They can be found in the charred parts of meat. Large amounts of both these substances have been shown to cause cancer in animals.
To enjoy a healthy barbecue, it’s essential that you reduce your exposure to these toxins. Here’s how:
1. Go for the vegetarian option
The easiest way to avoid health dangers associated with meat is to not eat it. Grilling vegetables doesn’t create cancer-causing chemicals. Delicious veggie barbecue foods can include eggplant, zucchini, stuffed peppers, sweet potatoes and chickpea burgers. A vegetarian barbecue won’t just help you prevent cancer; it will add more healthy vitamins and minerals to your diet too.
2. Keep your grill clean
PAHs form in meat that has been charred. Maintaining a clean grill will prevent pieces of charred meat that have fallen on the grill from sticking to the food you plan to eat.
3. Trim the fat
Before you cook, trim the fat from red meat and remove the skin from chicken. Reducing the amount of fat that drips on the grill reduces the chances of PAHs forming. By eating leaner cuts of meat, you’ll also reduce your intake of unhealthy saturated fats. For a lower fat alternative to red meat or poultry, try cooking fish, which can contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
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4. Don’t overcook
The more time meat spends on the grill and the hotter the temperature at which it is cooked, the greater the chance that HCAs will form. When meat is allowed to char, PAHs are created. To avoid these carcinogens, don’t cook at too high a temperature and remove food from the grill before it burns.
To save cooking time, cut meat into cubes and make kabobs. Fish takes a much shorter time to cook than red meat or chicken.
5. Remember to turn
Turning your meat frequently prevents it from becoming too hot, which can cause HCAs to form, and from charring, which can cause the formation of PAHs.
6. Add some spice
Research shows that adding rosemary, turmeric, or fingerroot to beef patties when cooking can reduce HCA levels by 40 percent. These spices contain phenols, a type of antioxidant, and have numerous health benefits. Marinating steaks with rosemary and other antioxidants before cooking can also decrease levels of HCAs.
7. Don’t rush to add barbecue sauce
The sugar in barbecue sauce forms PAHs when exposed to heat. The less time barbecue sauce spends on the grill, the better off you are. Don’t add sauce until just a few minutes before you expect your food to be ready. Better yet, wait until the food has already been served, and pour the sauce from the bottle directly onto your plate, or avoid barbecue sauce altogether and use herbs and spices to add flavor.
Don’t forget that the high levels of sugar in commercial barbecue sauces can cause additional health problems.
8. Scrape off the burnt parts
PAHs are found in the charred portions of meat. Not eating them will decrease your cancer risk.
9. Think about the rest of your diet
Adding healthy fruits and vegetables with antioxidant properties to your meal could help prevent some of the damage barbecued meats can cause. A healthy, clean diet and clean lifestyle throughout the year will minimize your overall cancer risk.
Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk, National Cancer Institute