Chances are you’re celebrating Labor Day weekend by grilling some burgers and hot dogs — but this beloved end-of-summer ritual may harbor some health risks. All those sizzling, juicy meats you love likely contain chemical compounds that could increase your risk of cancer. There's still a lot we don't know about the consequences of grilling meat, so there's no reason to panic, but there are steps you can take to mitigate this potential risk.
When meat is cooked at high temperatures — such as on a grill — it can form two potentially dangerous classes of chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs form when muscle in beef, pork, poultry, or even fish, is cooked at high temperatures, especially above 300 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Cancer Institute. PAHs form when fat from the meat drips over coals, producing smoke and flames that envelope the meat, depositing the chemicals.
In the lab, these chemical compounds were found to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. Mice and rats that were exposed to very high levels of HCAs and PAHs developed different types of cancer — in the colon, liver, lungs, and prostate. (The doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies were thousands of times the doses a person would eat in a normal diet.) Some studies also suggest that people who eat a lot of grilled meat have higher rates of stomach, pancreatic, and colon cancer, says Colleen Doyle, managing director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society. However, there’s no definitive link between HCA and PAH exposure and cancer in humans. “This is not proven,” says Robert Turesky, a biochemical toxicologist at the University of Minnesota.
Still, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) says you should exercise caution with your meat consumption. AICR recommends people to eat no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week — about three burger patties. Beef, pork, and lamb are all types of red meat. When it comes to processed meat — like hot dogs, sausages, and bacon — the AICR recommends people to stay away altogether. Processed meat, which is preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding other chemicals, is linked to increased risks of colorectal cancer.
Now, all this does’t mean you should give up grilling. “The occasional grilled steak isn't gonna kill you,” Doyle says. But you should do it in moderation. You should also be careful about how you cook your meats. So ahead of Labor Day, here’s a few recommendations on how to make your summer cookout healthier.
Choose leaner cuts of meat
Because PAHs form when fat drips on coals, you can reduce these chemicals by grilling leaner cuts of meat. You can also just trim the fat with a knife before throwing the meat on the grill.
Clean your grill
Charring meat contributes to the formation of those dangerous chemicals. To reduce exposure, you should keep your grill clean. “A lot of that char residue on the grill could contain some of these compounds,” Turesky says.
Choose hardwood over softwood
If you’re using wood to light your grill, you should choose hardwood such as hickory and maple, says Doyle. Hardwood (and charcoal) burn at lower temperatures than soft woods, such as pine. Because cooking meats at high temperatures causes HCAs to form, cooking with wood that burns at a lower temperature is desirable, Doyle says.
Line the grill with foil
And poke holes in it. That allows the fat to drip down, but keeps the meat from being completely enveloped in the smoke and flames that deposit PAHs.
Studies suggest that marinating your meat before grilling can decrease the formation of HCAs. It’s not exactly clear why, but it could be that the water, spices, and antioxidants in the marinades keep the chemicals from forming, Turesky says.
“Plus it makes it taste a lot better,” Doyle says. “All kinds of good reasons to marinate your meat ahead of time!”
Pre-cook your meat
Before throwing your steaks, burgers, and hot dogs on the grill, you should pre-cook them at lower temperatures in a microwave, stove, or oven. That reduces the amount of time the meat will sit on the grill, which in turns reduces the amounts of HCAs and PAHs.
Don’t pierce the meat while it’s cooking
That keeps the fat from dripping down, reducing the amount of PAHs.
Don’t cook the meat for too long
The longer you keep the meat on the grill, the longer you expose the meat to the chemicals. That’s why you should pre-cook your meat, or just prefer it medium-rare over well done. If you char the meat, cut those parts off.
Mix it up
Vegetables and fruit don’t form dangerous chemicals when cooked at high temperatures. So you might want to think about grilling some veggies alongside your meats. Plus, says Doyle, a diet high in veggies and whole grains is linked with a lower risk of some types of cancer, especially colorectal cancer.
But most of all, enjoy your Labor Day cookout!