Grilling for Cancer Protection

Written by Lori Bumbaco, MS, RDN, CSO, LDN, Oncology Dietitian

Grilling for Cancer Protection

Did you know that grilling (broiling) and barbecuing (charbroiling) meat, fish, or other foods with intense heat on the grill leads to formation of potential carcinogens?  In lab studies these substances have been linked to development of cancer through changes to the DNA.

These substances include:

  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): present in flames, these compounds can stick to the surface of meat.
  • Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): these substances form in meat when its proteins react to the intense heat of the grill.

While this news may sound scary, there are helpful ways that we can protect ourselves and still enjoy the summer of grilled food.

What To Do

One of the best ways to optimize cancer protection in our diet is to eat more plant foods.  Instead of focusing on meat, this summer try barbecuing more plant foods. Grilled vegetables and fruits are delicious, they don’t form HCAs when cooked and they’re key elements in a cancer protective diet.  However, it is important to try not to burn fruit or vegetables.

Experts advise that we fill at least two-thirds of our plate with plant foods. At cookouts, try to include plenty of colorful grilled vegetables and fruits like asparagus, red peppers, tomatoes, mangos and pineapple.  Did you also know that it is also National Watermelon Month?  We thought it would be a great idea to celebrate watermelon using a recipe included in this newsletter.

Five Steps for Cancer-Safe Grilling

  1. Marinate: Studies suggest that marinating meat before grilling can decrease formation of HCAs. Read below for additional information about marinades.
  2. Pre-Cook: If you are grilling larger cuts, you can reduce the time your meat is exposed to flame by partially cooking it in a microwave, oven or stove first.
  3. Go Lean: Trimming the fat off your meat can reduce flare-ups and charring. Cook your meat in the center of the grill and make sure to flip frequently.
  4. Mix It Up: Cutting meat into smaller portions and mixing them with vegetables can shorten cooking time.
  5. Go Green: Grilling of vegetables and fruits produces no HCAs. Try to add veggies and cut down the amount of meat, which is similar to a plant-based meal.

Marinades for Cancer Protection

When the scent of your neighbor’s backyard barbecue tempts you to cook your own food on the grill, consider marinating your meat first.  It’s a step you can take to lessen the cancer-causing substances that tend to form from high heat and dripping fat that make flames flare and create unhealthy black charring on meats.

Acid based marinades (ones that include vinegar, lemon, or yogurt) can decrease the formation of HCAs.  Herbs and spices, like rosemary and garlic, have beneficial compounds and oils that reduce the formation of PAHs and HCAs.  Who knew such flavorful ingredients were also cancer fighting?

To avoid food poisoning, be sure to discard the marinade in which you soaked uncooked meat, poultry and fish after you remove the food for grilling. If you want some for basting, set aside a bit – about one-third of a cup – before you’ve put the meat in to marinate.

Choosing leaner meats and avoiding processed meats like hot dogs and fatty sausages also lowers the cancer risk of a barbecue.  Cancer nutrition experts caution that processed meats and eating more than 18 ounces per week of red meat are linked to higher risk for colorectal cancer. That is why experts caution that we eat less than 12-18 ounces of cooked red meat per week.

Other best practices for grilling include:

  • Flipping meats with a spatula or tongs to avoid piercing that lets juices run out.
  • Using tinfoil between the meat and the flames.
  • Keeping a water spray bottle on hand to keep flames in check.
  • Not squirting starter fluid into coals while meats are cooking.

Fruits that are firm-fleshed do best when grilled. Try peaches, nectarines, plums, bananas, pineapple chunks and strawberries.

Enjoy some of the recipes included in the newsletter to expand your healthful repertoire in a cancer protective lifestyle!