My brother sent me a text photo of a blackened, charred beast with the question, “Should I eat this?” Apparently, his barbecue beer chicken had gone terribly wrong.
The short answer to his question was “no.” Burning muscle meats such as beef, pork or chicken creates two kinds of chemical compounds that may contribute to cancer: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
HCAs are created anytime meats are cooked at a high temperature such as grilling or frying, with charred barbecue meat containing the most HCAs of all. PAHs, on the other hand, are created when juices from the meat drip onto the hot coals and create smoke. This smoke contains carcinogens, which can then stick to the meat.
HCAs and PAHs are believed to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of certain cancers including stomach, colon, liver and skin. There are also some observational studies in humans showing a link between consuming a lot of grilled and well-done meats with cancer.
Barbecuing is easy, tasty and does not heat up your house; likely, the small cancer risk associated with grilling meat doesn’t mean you need to forgo hamburgers, hot dogs and steaks altogether, but like all good things, eat in moderation. You may also want to consider the following tips to minimize your risk:
• Clean your grill before cooking- this will remove any charred debris that could stick to your food.
• Cut off and discard badly charred pieces of meat.
• Precook meat slightly (such as microwaving them for a minute) before grilling – this reduces the amount of time the food is on the grill and allows some of the juices to drain, decreasing dripping and creation of PAHs.
• Marinate your meat. Acidic ingredients such as vinegar or lemon act as shield, preventing PAHs from sticking. However sugary marinades, such as barbecue sauce, should only be added during the last minute or two as they encourage charring.
• Grill vegetables or fruits instead of meat. Plant foods don’t create carcinogens when they char.