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On the Barbecue, Charred Is Barred

Many foods seem to taste better hot off the grill. But there's a dilemma facing those of us who love to barbecue in warm weather.

Researchers have found that cooking muscle meats—beef, pork, poultry, and fish—at high temperatures may pose a risk for cancer. The cooking process can cause amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and creatine, a chemical in muscles, to react and form heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Seventeen different HCAs from the cooking of muscle meats have been identified as potential cancer risks.

Studies in animals show a link between HCAs and cancers of the liver, colon, breast, and stomach. Human studies also reveal a similar association with high intakes of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats. For example, eating fried or broiled foods, which can contain HCAs, may increase the risk for developing colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancer. In addition, a National Cancer Institute (NCI) study found that people who ate their beef medium-well-done or well-done had more than three times the risk for stomach cancer as those who ate their beef rare or medium-rare. They also found that people who ate beef four or more times a week had more than twice the risk for stomach cancer as those consuming beef less often. That was true whether they grilled the meat or not.

Four factors

Four factors influence the formation of HCAs: temperature, type of food, cooking method, and time, the NCI says. Other sources of protein, such as milk, eggs, tofu, and organ meats, have very little or no HCAs when cooked.

Temperature is the most important factor in the formation of HCAs. Frying, broiling, and barbecuing produce the most HCAs, because the meats are cooked at very high temperatures, the NCI says. Gravies made with meat drippings also contain large amounts of HCAs, the NCI says. Meats that are roasted or baked contain lower amounts of HCAs because of lower cooking temperatures; meats that are stewed, boiled, or poached have almost no HCAs because of the very low cooking temperatures.

One way to reduce the amount of HCAs is to partially cook meat in a microwave or boil it first. Microwaving or boiling meats for two minutes reduces the amount of HCAs produced by 90 percent, the NCI says.

A serious risk

Although beef producers say there's no cause for alarm because the risk from HCAs is very low, the Department of Health and Human Services has added HCAs to its list of substances "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens."


You don't have to give up summer barbecues to cut back on HCAs. Just change some habits when you cook meats. Reduce cooking temperatures and cooking time, and cut back on the amount of barbecued meats you eat.

Try these tips:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat and trim the fat.

  • Select thin or smaller cuts of beef, pork, poultry, or fish.

  • Use a marinade with vinegar or lemon.

  • Microwave or boil meats for a few minutes before you barbecue, fry or broil them.

  • Don't cook directly over an open flame.

  • Use the medium setting on gas grills.

  • Don't make gravy from meat drippings.

Finally, don't forget the fruits and vegetables at your barbecues. They contain antioxidants that may help protect against HCAs.