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Meat on the Grill: A Source of Concern?

By Sara Butler

Grilling season is here! Most people take advantage of the nice weather to fire up their grills and cook outside in the summertime. The problem facing grillers is that research is putting a big question mark on the safety of grilling meat. There are risks to grilling your meat, so familiarize yourself with them so you can minimize your risk.

The Chemistry of the Grill

When you cook you’re basically practicing a form of chemistry. Applying heat to different types of food starts a chemical reaction that can taste great or be a disaster! The nutrients found in different foods make each chemical reaction different when you grill with them. This explains why food just tastes different when grilled rather than when it’s cooked on a stove or in the oven. Throw in some marinade or seasoning and you’re adding more chemicals to the equation and producing a different reaction.

The problem in the chemical changes occur when some grilled foods may be exposing you to cancer-causing agents. There are three chemicals that can be produced during the grilling process that may not be good for your health. They are:

  • Heterocyclic amines – That’s a mouthful! When you cook meat from muscles at high temperature it produces these chemicals. In the lab, these chemicals have been found to cause changes in DNA that increase the risk of cancer. It is only found in meat that has been cooked at a high temperature. How "well done" the meat is also has a bearing on the concentration of these chemicals.
  • Advanced glycation end products – These are also called glycotoxins. These chemicals are found naturally in meat and even in your body, and are highly oxidant which means they increase oxidative stress and inflammation in your body. These chemicals are increased in meat when they are grilled or broiled at high heat. While these are naturally occurring compounds, the more you eat the higher the concentration will be in your body that may cause damage.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – These aren’t found naturally in meat, but instead in the gas, coal or wood you use to cook it with. Additionally, more are formed when the fat dripping from the meat as it cooks drips on the heat source and creates smoke. PAH’s can cling to your clothing and you can inhale them as you cook. In lab animals, these compounds have been linked to stomach, skin, and liver cancer.

To Reduce Risks

In order to reduce your exposure to the more unsavory aspects of grilling, try:

  • Trimming the fat from meat
  • Don’t char the meat
  • Cook meat to medium
  • Use rubs and marinades
  • Pre-cook the meat, then finish on the grill
  • Add fresh vegetables

How you use the grill is up to you, but just be aware of how it can have an impact on your health!

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