Memorial Day Grilling Tips to Avoid Burned Meat Carcinogens

Enjoy a safer Memorial Day weekend by not overcooking your meat or poul­try. The browner it is, the more likely that it contains a group of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) which may raise the risk of cancer. This Memorial Day, in the name of health, avoid eating and serving burned meat to your guests.

“Heterocyclic amines are formed when meats are cooked to well done at high temperatures,” explains Amanda Cross, formerly at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. “Animal studies showed that they are carcinogenic.”

When Cross and her co-workers looked at roughly 300,000 men and women in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, they found about a 20 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer among people who consumed the highest levels of two key HCAs.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to avoid HCAs. Grilling and barbecuing create the most, followed by broiling and pan-frying. Baking, roasting, and stir-frying create fewer HCAs, and wet cooking methods (braising, stewing, poaching) generally produce the least.

Below are more ways to avoid burned meat and to minimize the formation of HCAs in your cooking.

burned meat


Good Grilling Means Less Burned Meat

Marinate. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s in the marinade or how long the food sits in the liquid. You can dip it in right before you throw it on the grill.

Microwave before cooking. You can eliminate 90 percent of the HCAs if you microwave meat or chicken first for 1½ to 2 minutes and pour off the juices.

Try seafood. As long as you don’t char seafood, it should have fewer HCAs than meat or poultry.

Keep it moist. The drier and more well done the meat, the more HCAs you get. Hot dogs and sausages seem to have fewer HCAs, perhaps because their casing prevents drying.

Flip frequently. Turning over meat or poultry every minute cuts the HCAs by 75 to 95 percent because the surface temperature stays lower.

Don’t eat the pan drippings. If the meat or poultry is well done, the drippings can have more HCAs than the meat or poultry itself.

Cook in liquid. Boiling, steaming, poaching, or stewing generates no HCAs because the temperature never tops the boiling point of water. Ditto for microwaving.

Eat your veggies. Veggie burgers and cooked vegetables generate few or no HCAs. And cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts may actually help the liver detoxify HCAs.

Here’s a great grilling recipe from our Healthy Cook Kate Sherwood.

“The secret to great grilling is a well-cleaned and oiled grilling grate,” says Kate. “Heat the covered grill to burn off any food residue, then brush the grate with a wire brush, grab a wad of paper tow­els with tongs, dip it in cooking oil, and use it to wipe the grate.”

No grill? You can sauté shrimp, fish, chicken, and veggies instead.


Chicken with Grilled Salsa

chicken salsa

Total Time: 30 minutes • Serves 4

The secret to this dish: vibrant, juicy tomatoes. You don’t even need to cook them: just toss with the oil, basil, and 1 clove of minced garlic.

  • 1 lb. tomatoes, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1¼ lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 bell peppers, cut in ½”-wide strips
  • 1 bunch basil, chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  1. Toss together the tomatoes, garlic, and oil in a disposable aluminum pie plate.
  2. Put the chicken between sheets of wax paper and pound to an even ½” thickness.
  3. Place the pie plate, chicken (smooth-side down), and peppers (skin-side down) on the grate and grill over a medium-hot fire until the chicken and peppers are well marked, about 5 minutes.
  4. Turn both over and cook until the chicken is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 1-2 minutes.
  5. Remove the pie plate from the grill and allow the tomatoes to cool slightly.
  6. Toss with the basil, season with pepper and up to ½ tsp. of salt, and serve with the chicken and peppers.

Per Serving: Calories 260; Total fat 11 g; Sat fat 2 g; Protein 30 g Carbs 9 g; Fiber 3 g; Cholesterol 80 mg; Sodium 320 mg

Source:  Cancer Res. 70: 2406, 2010.

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