Grilling is a great way to get the heat out of the kitchen this summer. Although grilling is a lean way to cook, there can be a downside to grilled foods.

Grilling is a great way to get the heat out of the kitchen this summer. Although grilling is a lean way to cook, there can be a downside to grilled foods.

When muscle meat (beef, pork, chicken or fish) is cooked at high temperatures, such as pan frying, broiling or grilling over an open flame, heterocyclic amines are formed. HCAs are known to be mutagenic, meaning they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of stomach, colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancers. 

The more well-done or charred the meat is, the more HCAs are produced. There is some evidence that well-done beef eaters are three times more likely to have stomach cancer as those that eat their beef rare to medium rare.

Barbecue smoke itself produces a carcinogenic compound called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs are formed when meat is smoked, like ribs or pulled pork. Anytime the grill releases more smoke, such as when fat drips onto the flame, more PAHS are formed and can adhere to the food. It’s the same dangerous chemical found in tobacco smoke, pollution and car exhaust.

The amount of HCAs or PAHs created depends on how long the food cooks, at what temperature and how it is prepared. Currently, no federal guidelines address safe consumption levels of HCAs or PAHs formed in meats.

But, you can take some steps to minimize the amount of HCAs and PAHs that form when you grill by using the following guidelines.

•Start with a clean grill. Scrape off any residue left from the last time you grilled so you don’t have any lingering charred bits clinging to your food.

•Marinate. What you marinate the meat in or how long you marinate doesn’t seem to matter. Marinating even just a few minutes seems to set up a barrier against the heat that lowers the creation of HCAs up to 90 percent. Keep oily marinades to a minimum though, as they may cause more flare-ups from dripping.

•Thaw frozen meat completely. Cooking frozen meat overexposes the surfaces to high temperatures while the inside slowly warms up.

•Microwave before cooking. You can eliminate 90 percent of the HCAs if you microwave meat or chicken first for just a couple minutes and pour off the juices.

•Grill seafood. Seafood will produce less HCAs as long as you don’t char it. Plus, fish cooks quickly, so it isn’t exposed to chemicals from the grill for long.

•Keep it moist. The drier the meat is, the more HCAs. Hot dogs and sausages seem to produce fewer HCAs, perhaps because of the casings.

•Bake, roast or stir-fry. Grilling and barbecuing create the most HCAs; next are broiling and pan-frying. Cooking at lower temperatures helps reduce HCAs.

•Flip often. Turning meat or poultry frequently helps the surface temperature stay lower and cuts the HCAs by 75 percent or more.

•Leave the drippings. The drippings likely have more HCAs than the meat itself, so don’t be tempted to use them in a sauce or to drizzle them over the meat.

•Grill fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables do not produce HCAs when grilled. And, they have the added bonus of naturally occurring cancer-fighting phytochemicals that may help combat the damaging effect of HCAs.

•Cook indirectly, or on the cooler part of the grill. Turn off one burner on a gas grill and cook on the cooler side. That way, your food won’t drip directly onto the flame and you can avoid flare-ups and charring.

•Think lean. Buy low-fat meat and trim excess fat from meat to reduce the amount of fat that drips onto the grill.

•Keep a squirt bottle of water handy to douse flames that get too high.

•Avoid mesquite. Choose oak or hickory for smoking instead, as they produce fewer PAHs than mesquite.

•Use a thermometer to cook meats to the proper temperature and avoid overcooking.

•Trim and discard any charred bits from the meat before eating.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.