Summer, it seems, is the season for all the things that can potentially kill you. The sun? That gives you cancer. Lounging around? That gives you cancer. And that other staple of summer, grill-charred meat? Yeah, that’ll give you cancer, too.
“Charring,” according to Alex Roher, M.D., “is when the surface of meat breaks down completely, leaving only carbon residue, and typically happens where the meat meets the metal.”
In short, when you blacken meat, the amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures to form heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, also found in cigarettes). That is to say, your grill can get so hot that it literally alters the chemical make-up of your meat, turning it from protein into an entirely different (carcinogenic) chemical.
Unfortunately, according to both Roher and the National Cancer Institute, despite how good this tastes, the above two compounds “can alter cellular DNA and convert a normal cell to a cancerous one.” This isn’t a crackpot conspiracy forwarded by your tinfoil hat-wearing uncle, either: There’s definitive evidence that any and all black char that forms on your meat is cancerous. Be it fish, beef, bird or pig, any protein exposed to extreme heat will form carcinogenic compounds that can lead to cancerous cells.
There’s minimal risk for those who enjoy the occasional burger, since they won’t be ingesting too much of these perfectly blackened cancer agents. Regular grillers should be wary, however. “The more often you consume charred meats, the risk increases,” says Roher.
The good news, after all that woe, is that you can char the heck out of vegetables and fruits: Not only do they not form HCAs, they’re chock-full of natural phytochemicals that can convert HCAs to an inactive, stable form that’s easily eliminated from the body. So make a point to throw a few peppers on the grill, since they may help protect your body against the HCAs in your body from the burgers and steak (here’s hoping they win). One major caveat here: This doesn’t apply to potatoes, which are loaded with carbohydrates and have their own set of issues (more on that later).
Don’t swear yourself to veganism just yet, though — there are several ways to potentially beat the cancer meat.
Lower the Temp
The simple fact is that the high, often hard-to-control temperatures of your grill are what’s making your meat dangerous. So if you absolutely refuse to have the guys over for boiled chicken wings, try pre-cooking the meat in the oven. “To significantly reduce hydrocarbon and amino production, partly pre-cook your meat before grilling,” says Roher. Cooking the meat further away from the heat source, or waiting until the embers cool a bit, will also greatly reduce the char.
If you need another reason to convince someone to stop ruining their meat by eating it well done, tell them that the more you cook meat, the more HCAs will form. According to the American Institute for Cancer, “a higher consumption of well-done meat is linked with two to five times more colon cancer and two to three times more breast cancer.” In addition, according to the American Center for Cancer Research, people who preferred well-done steak were “almost 60 percent [more] likely to get pancreatic cancer,” compared to those who ate steak less well done. So if you’re a regular griller, beware, and eat rare.
An article published in Science News notes a 1999 study that found that polyphenols — the micronutrients found in beer — can decrease the formation of cancer-causing HCAs dramatically. However, it should be noted that these results were found in rats, not humans, so getting hammered at the BBQ won’t necessarily make you cancer-proof.
Mind the Grill
Simply not letting your meat sit on the grill for too long will prevent char from forming, too. Moreover, grilling leaner meat cuts — or even just cutting the fat off your steak — will result in less drippage, which means fewer flare-ups and less smoke filled with cancer-causing chemicals deposited on the outside of the meat.
Marinate Your Meat
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, “Marinating can decrease HCA formation by up to 96 percent, although studies are still underway to determine which ingredients help the most.” Be sure to pour some beer on your meat though: Further studies have shown that beer marinade — specifically dark lagers — can reduce PAHs by up to 68 percent.
Mix It Up
Red meat is, of course, the worst for you — one study found that people who consumed barbecued red meat, above all other proteins, nearly doubled the risk of cancer-causing colon polyps. “Red meat is darker; therefore it conducts heat at a higher level and chars faster,” Roher says. The higher the heat, the more HCAs will form. So, mix it up. “Choose foods that cook quickly, like fish or kebabs — the more time food spends on the grill, the more carcinogens form,” says Abbey Sharp, a registered nurse and blogger at AbbeysKitchen.com. Throwing smaller pieces of steak on a kebab instead of grilling the whole thing will lower cooking time, and thus, char.
Don’t Burn Your Buns (Or Potatoes)
Meat isn’t the only charred thing giving you cancer. The British government recently launched a campaign called “Go for Gold,” urging people to not toast their bread or potatoes past the point of golden. Recent studies have shown the starches found in carbohydrates, when exposed to extreme heat, will form acrylamide, a cancer-causing agent found in animals.
Trimming off the fat, grilling more vegetables, lowering the temperature — these may all sound antithetical to the traditional American grilling experience, but think of it this way: At least you’ll be around longer to keep grilling.