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Can grilling your food ignite cancer?

Will eating grilled food increase your cancer risk? It may seem extreme - and confusing. Isn't grilling a healthier food preparation method? 

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer-causing chemicals form during the grilling process and these chemicals have been proven to cause cancer in lab animals.

Shayna Komar, a licensed and registered dietitian at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, explains the research and shares ways to make grilling safer. 

Grilling and harmful chemicals

Grilling can produce dangerous chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They are produced predominantly when cooking muscle meat like beef, pork, poultry and lamb at high temperatures over open flame or hot coals.

At temperatures of 350 degrees or higher, amino acids and creatine (a natural compound that helps supply energy to muscles and nerves) react to form HCAs. These HCAs have been proven to cause DNA damage that spurs the development of tumors in the colon, breasts, prostate and lymph system. Another chemical change can occur when PAHs form from fat dripping onto hot coals, creating smoke that settles onto the food.

“These chemical reactions cause compounds in the meat to change into potentially cancer-causing agents,” says Komar.

Healthy grilling tips

Fortunately, there are ways to make grilling a safer process and healthy cooking option. Komar says you simply have to give a little more thought to how and what you are cooking. She recommends the following grilling tips to avoid HCAs and PAHs:

  1. Marinate your meat. It creates a barrier between the meat and the flames. A review in the Natural Medicine Journal claims that adding marinade and spice rubs may lower HCA production by as much as 70 percent.
  2. Go nontraditional. Vegetables and fruits do not produce these harmful chemicals, so load up the grill with healthy produce. Komar’s summertime favorites are pineapples and peaches. Veggie burgers are also a great alternative to beef burgers.
  3. Swap meat for fish. It is a much leaner form of protein that produces fewer HCAs and PAHs.
  4. Choose leaner cuts of meat. Excess fat produces more juices that drip onto the hot coals and produce PAHs.
  5. Get skinny. Thinner cuts of meat take less time to grill, reducing the time they are exposed to hot temperatures. Komar recommends butterflying chicken breasts and forming thinner burger patties.
  6. Slow-cook your meat at a lower temperature, flipping it frequently. The lower the temperature, the less chance this chemical reaction will occur.
  7. Partially precook meat in advance to reduce the time it spends on the grill.

Click here to learn about foods you should add to your diet to prevent cancer. 

Piedmont Healthcare offers Cancer Wellness at four locations: Atlanta, Fayetteville, Newnan and Henry. 

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.


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