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Firing up the BBQ this summer? Tips to minimize cancer risk from grilling – National

As barbeque season kicks off, experts advice Canadians to take precautions when grilling red meats and hot dogs. While those tempting char marks add flavour, they also carry potential health risks.

Fortunately, you can enjoy your favourite grilled foods while minimizing the danger.

Cooking meat at high temperatures can create potentially harmful chemicals. These include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). While a direct link to human cancer hasn’t been established, laboratory experiments show they can alter DNA in ways that might increase cancer risk, according to the United States National Cancer Institute (NIH).

“There are two things to be aware of when it comes to barbecuing. The first is that red and processed meat, like beef, hot dogs or sausages, are types of red processed meat that might increase your colorectal cancer risk any way that you cook them,” warned Elizabeth Holmes, director of health policy with the Canadian Cancer Society.

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“And then research shows that cooking those meats plus poultry and fish at high temperatures, including barbecuing, may increase your risk of cancer. And that’s essential those cancer-causing substances are formed when the meat is cooked at that high heat.”

However, there are barbecue habits that can reduce your risk of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, including marinating, choosing leaner cuts of meat and grilling on low heat.

The key, Holmes cautioned, is to avoid charring the meat. The resulting smoke and charred bits contain carcinogens that can increase cancer risk.

Click to play video: 'How to know your meat is cooked & other BBQ safety tips'

How to know your meat is cooked & other BBQ safety tips

HCAs are formed when amino acids, sugars and creatine or creatinine (substances found in muscle) react at high temperatures, the NIH stated on its website.

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PAHs happen when fat and juices from meat are grilled directly over a heated surface or open fire drip onto the surface or fire, causing flames and smoke. The smoke contains PAHs that then stick to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as the smoking of meat.

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The formation of HCAs and PAHs varies by meat type, cooking method and “doneness” level (rare, medium or well done), the NIH reports. Regardless of the meat, high-temperature cooking methods like grilling or pan-frying (above 148 C) and longer cooking times generally lead to higher levels of these compounds.

For example, the NIH said well-done grilled or barbecued chicken and steak are high in HCAs. Also, cooking methods that expose meat to smoke, like grilling over an open flame, contribute to PAH formation.

How much grilled meat is a safe amount?

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) said there isn’t enough evidence to show that grilled meat specifically increases the risk for cancers.

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“But we do know that cooking meat at a high temperature — like grilling — creates cancer-causing substances…. These carcinogens can cause changes in the DNA that may lead to cancer,” the AICR said on its website.

The Canadian Cancer Society advises limiting red meat to three servings each week. A serving is 85 grams when cooked — smaller than a deck of cards.

The organization goes a step further and recommends avoiding processed meats entirely (or limiting them as much as possible). This includes ham, bacon, salami and hot dogs. Processed meats are any meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. These preservation methods can lead to the formation of cancer-causing substances.

But you don’t have to put away that barbecue yet.

Keith Warriner, a food safety professor at the University of Guelph, said that unless you are eating barbecue every single day, you should not be overly concerned.

“There is a link between these carcinogens in meat and barbecuing, the reality is that with barbeques, we don’t get to barbeque every day of the year. In a lot of cases, it’s just a week or two. So we shouldn’t be overly concerned,” he said.

Click to play video: 'BBQ Safety Tips with Health Canada'

BBQ Safety Tips with Health Canada

The best way to safeguard against cancerous compounds when grilling meat on the barbecue is by marinating it, Warriner said.

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He recommends using a beer marinade, if possible, as it has been proven to contain antioxidants that help prevent the formation of harmful compounds, like HCAs and PAHs.

For example, a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that marinating with beer can significantly lower the PAH contents in grilled meat. The study found that black beer had the most significant effect.

“It comes down to marinading with things that have high antioxidants,” Warriner said. “What happens is that you’re coating the meat, and these hydrocarbons come along, it kind of neutralizes them.”

Adding honey, vinegar, oils, lemon juice and herbs to your meat about 30 minutes before grilling has also been shown to help reduce the formation of cancerous compounds.

Click to play video: 'Better ways to BBQ: The heath effects of meat & marinades'

Better ways to BBQ: The heath effects of meat & marinades

To further reduce your exposure to HCAs and PAHs, consider precooking your meat partially in the oven or microwave. The AICR said that doing this shortens the high-heat cooking time on the grill, minimizing the formation of these harmful chemicals.

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Trimming the fat off your meat can also reduce flare-ups and charring, the AICR said.

“Choose leaner cuts of meat for barbecuing, and you can barbecue it slowly … not directly on that high heat,” Holmes suggested, adding that instead of barbecuing meat you can try vegetables.

“So think about all the vegetables and fruits you can put on the barbecue and still have the fun of barbecuing and being outside.”

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