Backyard barbecuers realize the danger of undercooking meats. But they may not know that eating beef, chicken, lamb, pork, or fish grilled until it's overcooked, or burnt and charred, might increase the risk of developing certain cancers, according to some research.
Such grilling can transform amino acids and other natural substances in the foods into compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Some studies suggest that ingesting these and other compounds might affect food safety by increasing the risk of breast, colon, pancreatic, prostate, and stomach cancer.
It's not yet known how much HCAs might increase cancer risk in people, says an official at the National Cancer Institute. But experts we consulted suggested ways to limit your exposure:
Turn the heat down.
Whether you grill, pan-fry, or oven-roast meats, cook at a temperature below 325º F, the surface temperature at which HCAs begin to form. Flip burgers once a minute to cool the surfaces and prevent HCA formation. And use a meat thermometer to make sure you kill harmful bacteria by cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165º F; ground beef, lamb, and pork to 160º F; beef and lamb steaks and roasts to 145º to 160º F; and fish to 145º F, according to government food safety guidelines. If you like your meat well-done, there are ways to reduce the formation of HCAs. Immediately before grilling, microwave hamburger patties or chicken breasts for 1 to 2 minutes at a medium setting (longer for larger cuts) and pat the meat dry. Microwaving can help inhibit HCA formation, but it might make some meats less juicy.
Marinate the meat.
Marinating food before grilling can greatly reduce HCA formation, research shows. A marinade including cider vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, and spices reduced certain HCAs by 92 to 99 percent in chicken breasts grilled for 10 to 40 minutes, compared with unmarinated breasts.
Don't cook directly over flame.
Fat or marinade dripping on briquettes or gas flames creates flare-ups that contribute to HCAs and form other potential carcinogens that stick to the surface of food as char or ash. To avoid flare-ups, distribute briquettes to the sides of a charcoal grill, or turn off one side or the middle burners of a gas grill. Take those steps even if you've microwaved the meat, and trim any charred parts.