Grilling creates carcinogens...but what can we do about it?

    It’s safe to say it’s grilling season. Whether you are throwing burgers on the grill or are grilling up some juicy chicken, there are some important things to know when it comes to grilling.  Grilling creates harmful substances called carcinogens that can play a role in genetic mutations, and therefore a role in the formation of cancer in the body.

  Interestingly enough, there is more than one type of harmful substance created by grilling including AGEs, HCAs, and PAHs.  AGEs are produced during something called the Maillard Reaction, where proteins and fats react with the sugars within food while it’s being exposed to high heat.  You generally can see when the Maillard Reaction takes place, as the food will begin to brown.  Notable examples of this reaction include the browning that occurs to create the crust on bread, the caramelization of onions, or the charring on steak.  As you may know, this browning process may add a lot of flavor to food, but...it is not good for our bodies!  AGEs cause your body to age.  Really not a huge surprise here based on the acronym, but certainly a scary concept.  But it may get you thinking, how do AGEs age the body?  Glad you asked.  AGEs create inflammation in the body.  The more inflammation we have in our bodies, the faster we age.  We also are more at risk for chronic diseases when we have chronically elevated levels of inflammation.  This means that AGEs increase our susceptibility to diseases such as type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, and more!

    PAHs are also interesting to learn about.  PAHs are formed when the flame from the grill comes in contact with the surface of the meat.  (PAHs are also formed from coal and wood burning.)  So when the drippings from the meat cause the flame to shoot up and hit the meat, it creates the PAHs that then adhere to the meat’s surface.  HCAs are formed when sugars and proteins within food react with each other under high heat.  But, the question here is, why should we be wary of HCAs and PAHs?  Well, they bind to DNA.  This gives them the ability to possibly cause mutations to DNA, and in turn, possibly cause tumor formation.  

    Okay, so now you may be thinking...I’m never grilling again, but wait, I have a BBQ next weekend!  Before you let the panic set in, there are some things that can be done to create less of these harmful carcinogens.  One thing that can be very helpful is to open a vitamin E capsule and either mix it into the meat (if you are making something like burgers) or add it to the marinade (if you are making something like steak or chicken).  Vitamin E is an antioxidant so it has an amazing ability to keep a large amount of the HCAs from being formed.  And you don’t even need that much of it!  400 IU of vitamin E is enough for 10 lbs of meat.  

    Another important thing to do is to always marinate your meat before you cook it.  Using marinades that contain vinegars, citrus juices, herbs with antioxidants, and/or garlic help to protect the  meat while it is cooking.  (I use The Functional Nutrition Brand Dressings to protect my meat while I cook because they contain many of these protective ingredients!)  Let the meat sit in the marinade for at least two hours, up to overnight.  A third helpful, yet kinda weird idea, is the use of cherries.  Adding cherries to your marinade or adding cherries to the meat itself can also reduce the formation of HCAs.

    In addition to the things mentioned, other things that are important are to make sure that you pair the meat with high antioxidant meals that contain lots of vegetables.  This will help the body be able to process some of the carcinogens before they can cause harm to the body.  Also, it’s helpful to cook the meat low and slow.  The lower the heat, the less impact the heat has on carcinogen formation.  You can also use things to wrap your meat before you cook it, such as banana leaves, corn husks, and parchment paper.  Or you can cook the meat on only one side and close the lid of the grill to cook the other side.  This way only half the meat will have the chance to be directly in contact with the flames.  If you do end up with charring, make sure to scrape off the charred bits before consuming! 

    Grilling is a form of cooking that we have known all our lives and will likely continue to utilize, but it’s the steps we chose to take to attenuate the damage created by grilling that makes all the difference.  The question is, what changes are you willing to make?

    Check out our selection of The Functional Nutrition Brand Dressings for your grilling needs.