By Dr. Mercola
In the US, 80 percent of households own a grill or smoker, and 97 percent of grill owners had used it for cooking in the past year.1 While the most popular grilling holidays are the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, about 60 percent of grillers use their grill year-round.
While it’s encouraging that so many people enjoy cooking their own meals at home, arguably one of the best choices you can make, doing so on a grill is, unfortunately, not ideal for your health, due to toxic grilling byproducts created in the meat.
There’s good news though… simple (and tasty) steps can significantly cut down on toxins in your meat and make grilled meat healthier.
Cancer-Causing Substances Form in Grilled Meats
Any time you cook meat at high temperatures, whether you’re grilling, frying, broiling, etc., some pretty nasty chemicals are created. For instance, when fat drips onto the heat source, causing excess smoke, the smoke surrounds your food and it can transfer cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to the meat.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are also formed when food is cooked at high temperatures, and they’re also linked to cancer. In terms of HCA, the worst part of the meat is the blackened section, which is why you should always avoid charring your meat, and avoid eating any blackened sections.
Scientists have estimated the average cancer risk because of heterocyclic amine exposure ranges from 1 per 10,000 for the average person to more than 1 per 50 for those ingesting large amounts of well-done muscle meats (beef, pork, fish, and poultry), especially flame-grilled chicken. Other research shows:2
- People who regularly eat well-done meat cooked at high temperatures have a 60 percent greater risk of pancreatic cancer3
- Both HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic, which means they cause changes in DNA that may increase cancer risk, and have been found to cause cancer in animals4
- A diet high in HCAs has been linked to tumors in the breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, prostate, and other organs in animals5
- Animals fed PAHs developed leukemia and tumors of the gastrointestinal tract and lungs6
Beer Marinade Slashes Toxic PAHs in Grilled Meat
If you choose to grill meat, here’s a simple trick: marinate it in beer first. When researchers marinated pork loin steaks in beer for four hours, then grilled it to well-done on a charcoal grill, it led to significantly lower amounts of PAHs in the meat.7
Interestingly, certain types of beer worked better than others (namely, the darker, presumably more antioxidant-rich beer had the best effect). Specifically, compared to non-marinated pork loin:8
- A pale lager marinade (pilsner) reduced the formation of PAHs by 36.5 percent
- A nonalcoholic pilsner marinade reduced formation by 25 percent
- A black beer marinade (a dark lager) reduced PAHs by 68 percent
Past research also showed that marinating steak in red wine or beer for six hours before cooking cut levels of two types of HCAs by up to 90 percent.9 Beer was also efficient at reducing a third type of HCA, cutting levels significantly in just four hours. In this study, the meat was pan-fried, not grilled, a method also known to create toxic byproducts.
Vinegar, Olive Oil, and Spices Also Cut Down on Carcinogens in Cooked Meats
If you’re not a fan of beer or wine, you can swap those out for other tasty marinade or rub ingredients like herbs, spices, lemon juice, vinegar, and more. Although I highly recommend making your own marinades at home (as store-bought varieties often contain high-fructose corn syrup and additives, including MSG), even store-bought varieties were very effective at reducing carcinogenic chemicals.
In one study, steaks were marinated for one hour prior to grilling in one of three commercial marinades -- Caribbean, Southwest, or herb. Each significantly decreased HCAs, as follows:10
- The Caribbean mixture decreased total HCA content by 88 percent
- The herb marinade decreased HCAs by 72 percent
- The Southwest marinade decreased HCAs by 57 percent
Marinating steaks in a base mixture of oil, water, and vinegar (without spices) was also effective at decreasing HCAs, which means you can feel free to use whatever flavors suit your palate. For instance, in one study adding a spice blend to burgers reduced the level of malondialdehyde, a chemical marker for oxidation, in the meat by 71 percent and levels in participants’ urine by 49 percent.11
The following ingredients have all been shown to be effective at lowering HCAs in various meats. You can add them in directly to the meat (such as in hamburgers), via marinade or using a dry rub:12
Cherries Dried plums Apples Garlic Virgin olive oil Teriyaki marinade Turmeric Onions Rosemary Grape seed extracts Cider vinegar Mustard Lemon juice Cloves Cinnamon Oregano Black pepper Paprika Ginger
A word of warning… traditional barbecue sauce made of tomato solids and sugar is not the best choice for grilling. One study found it caused a significant increase in chemical formation – “doubling and even tripling” levels of HCAs after 15 minutes of cooking.13
Healthy Grilling Tips to Cut Down on Cooking Toxins
I do believe it’s best to limit the amount of grilled foods you eat, but if it’s something you aren’t willing to give up, use the tips that follow to make it far healthier for your body.
- You can reduce the amount of PAHs when you grill by not cooking fatty meats, and by trimming the fat off before you grill.
- When grilling, cook your food with indirect heat, such as on a rack rather than directly on the coals. Cooking on a cedar plank is also helpful.
- Always avoid charring your meat (and don't eat the black or brown parts).
- Cook meat partially before putting it on the grill, or cook smaller pieces of meat, which take less time to cook, and therefore give HCAs less time to form.
- You can reduce the amount of another cooking byproduct, advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), in your food by using an acidic marinade that contains lemon juice or vinegar.
- Marinating meats before grilling or broiling them can reduce HCAs (according to some experts by 90 percent or more). However, only use natural ingredients for marinades, and keep the coating thin to avoid charring.
- Flip your burgers often, as this will help cut down on HCAs.
- Add blueberries, cherries, garlic, or spices to your burgers, as they can also help prevent the formation of HCAs. Cherries appear to be particularly effective, with research by food scientist J. Ian Gray showing “substituting ground cherries for 11.5 percent of the meat in hamburger reduced the formation of PhIP, the principal heterocyclic amine that forms when this meat cooks. The cherry burger had about 10 percent of the amount of PhIP in a pure grilled hamburger.”14
- Add vitamin E to your burgers. Research by Gray found that mixing a 40-milligram vitamin E capsule into ground beef works almost as well as ground cherries at inhibiting the production of HCAs – without affecting taste.15
- Adjust your cooking temperature, even when using your oven. Increasing oven temperature from 392 degrees F to 482 degrees F may triple the amount of HCAs created in beef.16
- Avoid grilling hot dogs, bratwurst, and other processed meats, as these seem to be among the worst offenders.
- If grilling chicken, remove the skin prior to cooking, and don’t eat the skin if you do cook it, as it has the highest HCA content.
- Only grill high-quality, organic and grass-fed meats.
- Cook the meat as little as possible -- rare or medium-rare at the absolute most. You can also quickly sear the meat on both sides, leaving the inside mostly raw. This gives the illusion that you’re eating cooked meat, with many of the benefits of raw. Remember, with HCAs, the longer the cooking time and the higher the heat, the more HCAs.
How to Help Neutralize Damage from HCAs You Do Consume
If you eat cooked foods, you’re probably consuming HCAs (and other cooking byproducts). Aside from using marinades and spices strategically to reduce their formation, another strategy is to fortify your diet with superfoods known to help neutralize such toxins. As reported in the Natural Medicine Journal,17 this is easy to do just by eating a diet rich in vegetables (especially spinach and cruciferous varieties) and fermented foods. Interestingly, if you indulge in an occasional beer, the best time to do so might be along with your grilled meat, as the yeast it contains may also help mitigate HCA toxicity.
“Genotoxic in vitro testing tells us that green tea, black tea, rooibos tea, red wine, blueberries, blackberries, red grapes, kiwifruit, watermelon, parsley, and spinach all inhibit the mutagenic activity of certain HCAs. The chemical sulforphane present in cruciferous vegetables has also been shown to have antimutagenic effects against HCAs. The bacteria found in fermented dairy foods also have a neutralizing effect.
The yeast in beer appears to have a similar neutralizing effect. Consuming beer in close proximity in time to when barbecued meat is eaten is one of the most effective ways to lower HCA mutagenicity. Dark or stout beers are in some reports more effective than paler beers. Green tea extracts also lower HCA mutagenic potential. Thus incorporating any of these foods into meals containing barbecued meat or poultry may lessen the mutagenic effect.” 18