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Summer Means Grilling Outdoors … and Cancer?

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Summer is all about cookouts. After all, who wants to be stuck in the kitchen when the weather is perfect? But before you pull out your barbecue tongs, did you know that grilling meat at high temperatures could increase your risk for colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreas, breast, and prostate cancers?

According to Harvard researchers, when meat is cooked at high temperatures— either by grilling, frying or broiling— the amino acids react with creatine stored in the meat to form heterocyclic amines (HCAs), known carcinogens. HCAs do not exist in uncooked meats. They are only produced when meat is exposed to high and prolong heat. In other words, if you like your meat well done, HCAs formation is higher than in meat cooked at lower temperatures for less time.

Additionally, the same reason grilled meat is so tasty—its smoky-rich flavor— also produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These cancer-causing chemicals, including benzopyrene, are in the smoke from burning charcoals or drips of fat that cause flare-ups. Incidentally, benzopyrene is one chemical found in cigarette smoke.

Charred foods also contain PAHs, like when you burn your toast or send your roasted marshmallow into a burst of flames. So, if you can taste smoke, expect those chemicals are in your food. Cancer aside, research has also shown that high prenatal exposure to PAHs is associated with low IQ.

But there is good news here, so don’t throw out your grill just yet. While PAHs and HCAs definitively cause cancer in humans, they are a part of everyday life and the human body has a way to take care of them if consumed in low quantity, said Colleen Doyle, nutrition and physical activity director for the American Cancer Society. Doyle also suggests there are several things you can do when grilling to reduce your risk.

  • The most obvious thing here is to turn down the heat. Try using smaller cuts of meat. They cook more quickly at lower temperatures; A smart choice all around.
  • Choose leaner cuts of meats whenever possible. This reduces the amount of dripping grease and in turn lessens the amount of smoke.
  • Precook meat in the microwave.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.