It’s been long known that cooking foods at high temperatures, especially grilling or barbecuing have been shown to produce some harmful chemicals (carcinogens) that are mutagenic (causes changes in DNA). When exposed to large quantities these compounds have been linked to increased risk of certain cancers. Risk for each individual is different.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed when meat is overcooked or charbroiled (blackened). The protein and sugars in meat react together with heat. Research shows that eating HCAs in very large doses are associated with a higher risk of certain cancers.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when meat is charred as well as when fat drips from the meat onto the hot surface of the grill. This forms PAHs in the smoke, which penetrate into meat and can affect you when you inhale them standing over the grill.
How to make grilling safer and healthier
Grill at home, so you are able to plan and strategize to reduce your exposure of HCA’s and PAH’s. Grilling is tasty and enjoyable and can be healthy when done right to be part of a well balanced diet.
First, choose meat wisely. Limit fatty meats or trim off excess fat before grilling. Purchase good quality whole lean meats along with chicken without the skin (or pull skin off after cooking), and fish. Highly processed meats with nitrites, sodium and other preservatives (including hot dogs, bacon, sausage, ham, and deli meats) have an even stronger link for cancer risk. Make your own burgers with ground turkey, beef or your other favourite meats, perhaps a lean or extra lean vs regular ground. Remember that fattier meats drip more into the grill and cause more PAH’s. Serving smaller portions of your favourite meats and choosing better choices are also heart healthy. Don’t forget to include fish, seafood or try grilling a homemade veggie burger or tofu as well.
Secondly, take some time to marinate your meat ahead of time. Not only do these ingredients give your food a lot of flavour but also have been shown to be protective and reduce the amount of harmful particles produced when grilling. Lower Sodium Marinades - for tips and a full set of recipes. Marinate your meat in acidic marinades rather than highly sugary sauces like BBQ sauce, if possible which studies have shown can contribute to doubling or tripling HCA production.
Include lots of herbs, spices and foods including fruits and vegetables to your meats and sides that are high in antioxidants. These are all protective and inhibit the production of HCA's. Sprinkle or mix in your favourite spices. Mine include “any green herbs”. I just reach into my cupboard and surprise myself - oregano, rosemary, basil, Italian seasoning etc. Black pepper, turmeric, paprika, chili, garlic, ginger all good choices for adding in antioxidant properties. Dried cherries are also shown to inhibit HCA production (try dried or fresh). For antioxidants, think about putting lots of colour on your plate, especially on the side - veggies kabobs, fresh corn (wrap in foil), pull out your mini frying pan and saute some peppers, mushrooms and onions, bake some potatoes, add your favourite leafy greens, salads and a side of fresh fruit.
Don’t overheat food on the BBQ. Turn your BBQ down slightly - lower temperature, longer cooking. Use a thermometer to check that meat is done. Avoid over burning your meats, if you do cut-off the burnt parts. If possible cook on indirect heat such as a cedar plank or even partially cook on a higher rack or oven before. Flip your meat and burgers more often to cut down on HCA’s; don’t press down to release fats and juices this will cause more PAH’s.
Lastly when grilling keep everything in perspective. It’s not just the way you cook your food (grilling) that affects your health risk. Being inactive, carrying extra body weight and eating a poor diet, low in whole foods including vegetables and fruits and high in processed/pre-prepared foods contributes as well.
References and Resources:
Lime, Honey and Sriracha Grilled Chicken
6 to 8 large bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
¼ cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
2 Tbsp honey (optional)
2 Tbsp reduced sodium soy sauce (Tamari for gluten-free)
2 Tbsp Sriracha hot sauce
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp grated lemon zest
2 tsp garlic, minced
2 tsp grated fresh ginger root
½ tsp each cumin AND chili powder
1 can of pineapple tidbits (drained) or chopped fresh pineapple,
1 medium red bell pepper, halved (seeds removed)
⅓ cup red onions, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced
2 Tbsp lime juice, freshly squeezed
1 to 2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, minced
pinch of salt
Mix together marinade ingredients in a small bowl or measuring cup. Reserve ¼ cup marinade to use as a basting sauce for the chicken while grilling. Pour remaining marinade about ½ cup over chicken thighs in a small glass baking dish or Ziploc bag. Turn pieces over several times to coat evenly with marinade. Cover and marinate in the fridge for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Just before grilling chicken, make the salsa.
Pre-heat grill to medium-high. Place chicken on the grill. Grill for 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the chicken over and grill for 4 to 5 more minutes. Continue to cook chicken every 3 to 4 minutes until an internal temperature of 165 F (about 25 to 30 min). During the last 5 minutes brush the glaze on both sides of the chicken. Remove from the grill.