Meat contains creatine, an organic acid that helps to supply the energy used by muscle cells. When you cook meat, a chemical reaction turns creatine into a group of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and there is some evidence that these compounds cause cancer in high concentrations.
Barbecues tend to be hotter than other cooking methods, and if you cook everything until it is well done and charred, the level of HCAs is much higher.
A barbecue also heats the meat from below. As the fat drips onto the hot coals it burns, and the smoke rises up and coats the meat. This smoke contains lots of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the partially burned fat. PAHs are another group of chemicals that are known to cause cancer.
Most of the studies linking HCAs and PAHs to cancer have been in labs, using rats and very high doses. Most people don’t eat barbecue food often enough for the health risk to be measurable, even if you spend every Saturday afternoon in the sunshine drinking beer and eating burgers.
If you are worried, use a marinade!
A 2008 study found that spicy marinades can decrease HCA formation, so don’t be afraid to sprinkle on the red pepper.
Certain spices are packed with antioxidants that will help to eliminate HCAs in the grilling process. One study showed that adding spices, such as thyme, sage, and garlic, can reduce the amount of total HCAs by 60% compared to the control.
Rosemary may be especially potent. A recent study found that high concentrations of rosemary extracts may reduce HCAs by up to 90% in some cases.
Red wine is full of antioxidants, and this can carry over in your marinades. Marinating beef in red wine for six hours before grilling decreased the amount of carcinogens—40% fewer than in beef that wasn’t marinated—according to a study by the University of Porto in Portugal.
Using beer has been found to provide similar positive effects. According to research published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, soaking meat in a marinade of beer – especially stout or black beer – reduces the creation of PAHs when it’s grilled by around 50%.
Grill veggies instead
Unlike meat, vegetables don’t create carcinogens when they char as the formation of HCAs depends on the presence of creatine, which is mostly found in muscle tissue. The lack of fat also means there are no flare-ups that can create smoke.
Grilled veggies offer that same hot-off-the-grill taste without the dangers presented by their meaty counterparts. However, if you crave grilled meat, make kebabs. Using half meat, half veggies is healthier and cuts down on the HCAs. The “meat on a stick” concept works great for cuts of beef, chicken, pork, and sausage or any meat that’s not ground. Skewer fruits and veggies like summer squash, zucchini, mushrooms, brussel sprouts, pineapple, either with meat or solo.
How to have a healthier barbecue
- Lower the temperature on your gas grill to prevent meat from burning
- Marinate your meat to create a barrier between it and the formation of HCAs
- Switch to seafood, which typically forms fewer HCAs than meat and requires a shorter cooking time
- Opt for leaner meats and trim any fat off before grilling to reduce dripping and flame flare-ups
- Cut down on grill time by oven-roasting or pan-searing meat first
- Clean your grill after use to avoid transferring leftover chemicals
- Cut meat into smaller portions to reduce cooking time and flip food over frequently
- If you do nothing else, pick off the burnt bits before eating