Grilling or barbecuing meat at high temperatures leads to the production of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), compounds known as “mutagens” which damage DNA. HCAs are formed when amino acids and sugars present in meat react under high temperatures.

Additionally, liquid fat drips into the flame of a barbeque and creates smoke filled with PAHs, coating the surface of the meat. While the best solution is to use other cooking methods when possible, there are several simple ways to balance the effects of grilling your favorite foods.

Choose Meat Wisely

Emphasize leaner cuts of meat. Less fat drippings means less smoke and less exposure to PAHs. Further, removing the skin from poultry before cooking will reduce HCA formation.

Marinate

Not only does marinating meat impart more flavor, it can also be protective against carcinogenic compounds. Acid-containing marinades (e.g., those 

containing vinegar or lemon/lime juice) are best to reduce formation of HCAs. It is also important to note that traditional barbeque sauces, which tend to have a high sugar content, can increase formation of HCAs. If using these sauces, they should be added to foods after they have been cooked.

Add Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices have been shown to reduce formation of HCAs when meats are grilled. Mint, onion, turmeric, garlic, rosemary, ginger, thyme, and red chili pepper are all great choices. These herbs can be used in marinades, mixed into ground meats, or used as a dry rub.

Avoid Over-cooking or Charring

The amount of time your meat contacts the grill makes a difference.  Try quicker -cooking proteins like fish or shrimp, or cut your meats into smaller pieces to reduce cooking time (meat and vegetable kebabs are a great solution). Rotate meat frequently to allow the center to fully cook without overheating the surface. Blackened or charred areas of meat can be removed to reduce exposure to HCAs and PAHs.

Try Grilling Other Food Groups

Fruits and vegetables have been shown to inhibit activity of HCAs and reduce DNA damage caused by these compounds. Fortunately, antioxidant rich produce can also be delicious when grilled.  Try zucchini, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, apples, peaches, pineapple, or even watermelon for a unique addition to your meal.

Who who considers themselves an 'expert griller' or someone that is comfortable grilling? I hope this information is helpful and for those that are new to it, let me know if you have any questions!

xox, Dr. G