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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Safe Summer Grilling

Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

Cooking and eating outdoors are some of summer's special treats, especially for those who live in climates with cold winters.

But omnivores should take note: grilled meats can contain cancer-causing compounds like heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

It doesn't only affect burgers and steaks, any muscle meat is vulnerable. HCAs and PAHs can be found in grilled beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, duck, and fish.

HCAs are formed when amino acids in meat react with creatine in the presence of high heat (temperatures above 300F, according to the National Cancer Institute). Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are formed when fats and juices from meats drip over an open fire and flame up. They are most concentrated in charred meats but can also be found in well-done meats, smoked meats, cigarette smoke, air pollution and unvented fires.

PAHs and HCAs have been linked to several kinds of tumors, including cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, lung, liver, skin, prostate, breast and blood (leukemia).

But there is some good news: You can grill safely.

Take these simple steps to reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds when grilling meats: 

1. Cook meats low and slow (not above 300F).

2. Don't char meats.

3. Choose leaner cuts of meat that cook quickly and drip less fat.

4.  Prevent juices and fat from dripping onto hot coals by cooking meat near hot coals but not directly over them.

5.  Marinate, mix and rub meats before you grill them.

Studies have shown that garlic, onions, virgin olive oil, rosemary, beer, and wine are all effective at decreasing the formation of PAHs and/or HCAs in meats. 

Marinate meats for at least 6 hours in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, red wine, crushed garlic, chopped onions, and fresh rosemary.

If you're making burgers, mix in some crushed or minced garlic, grated onion, and finely chopped or dried ground rosemary ahead of time, and brush them with extra virgin olive just before you grill them.

Or rub meats with a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, crushed garlic, and dried ground or finely chopped fresh rosemary. Allow them to sit for a few hours or overnight before you grill them. 


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Persson E et al. Influence of antioxidants in virgin olive oil on the formation of heterocyclic amines in fried beefburgers. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2003 Nov;41(11):1587-97.

Puangsombat K et al. Inhibition of heterocyclic amine formation in beef patties by ethanolic extracts of rosemary. Journal of Food Science. 2010 Mar;75(2):T40-7.

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Zheng W et al. Well-done meat intake, heterocyclic amine exposure, and cancer risk. Nutrition and Cancer. 2009;61(4):437-46.

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