Tips to lower cancer risk when grilling

July 16, 2019
father and daughter grilling at a cookout
Give veggies a chance to shine at your next cookout

By Cecelia Jacobson, registered dietitian with the Oregon Heart & Vascular Institute at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend

It’s summertime and chances are you’re heading outside more often to enjoy dining and socializing around the backyard grill.

Not to douse anyone’s passion for grilling, but research shows that people who eat lots of well-done, fried or barbecued meats are at higher risk for colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The good news is that some simple changes in what and how you barbecue can help lower those risks.

When grilled at high temperature, meats such as beef, pork, poultry and fish produce two cancer-causing compounds: HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.) In laboratory experiments, both of these compounds have been found to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.

HCAs are produced when meat reacts at high temperatures (275-572 degrees Fahrenheit). HCAs begin to form at the low end of that temperature range and build up during prolonged cooking. At the high end of that range, HCAs begin to form within minutes.

PAHs form when fat from the meat drips onto hot coals or stones and then coats the meat through smoke and flare-ups.

To get the best out of grilling and lower your cancer risks, try these tips:

  1. Make produce the star. Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and can help protect against cancer. Unlike meat, vegetables don’t form HCAs when grilled and there’s typically little fat to drip and create PAHs. Try grilling corn on the cob or skewered tomatoes, peppers and zucchini to add color and flavor to your meal. Grilled fruits, such as pineapple or peaches can add a nice sweet treat to a meal.
  2. Avoid directly exposing meat to open flames or to a hot metal surface. The black, crispy crust you see on the edge of ribs or a steak is more likely to contain a higher concentration of potentially carcinogenic compounds.
  3. Avoid prolonged cooking time, especially at high temperature. That will help reduce the build-up of HCAs and PAHs. The longer the meat is cooking, the longer the chemical reaction is happening to create more HCAs. Consider partially cooking your meat in the microwave or in the oven, then finish it off on the grill. Another option is to grill the meat in foil to protect it from smoke and also speed up cooking time.
  4. Continuously turn the meat as it cooks. Show gratitude to the grill masters who stand at the barbecue patiently flipping steaks and burgers and turning hotdogs. Their work is not in vain. Continuously turning meat over a high heat source can substantially reduce the formation of HCAs compared with just leaving the meat on the grill.