While we’ve about reached the end of summer, some of you are like me and will clear the snow off the grill without a second thought. Grilling doesn’t stop just because the weather is turning.
I’m often criticized for my method of cooking meat. I enjoy it a bit beyond well done, with a nice charred taste to it. I’ll take a steak, pierce it, and then squeeze out the juices with a spatula to get it nice and dry. About 15-20 minutes cooking on each side cooks it up about right. You can see my method and results in the photos in this article.
I’ve been told that charring meat in this manner causes cancer, but is that fact or a myth? I set out to find the answer.
When we cook meat at high temperatures, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the formation of two carcinogens. The first are PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These form when fat drippings hit a hot surface and turn into smoke. The smoke surrounds the meat and this transfers the PAHs to the meat itself.
The second carcinogen, HCAs, or heterocyclic amines, are formed when meat is charred or cooked at a very high temperature (300* or above) such as frying.
Research has shown that rodents fed very high doses of PAHs and HCAs developed cancers in multiple areas of the body. It should be noted, however, that the doses in these studies were extremely high, equivalent to thousands of times what a human would experience in a normal diet. The research is not clear if PAHs or HCAs have a similar effect on humans, and if so, what level of their consumption is considered dangerous.
So to get back to the original question, does grilling meat cause cancer? That’s a bit tricky to answer. Worded that way, I’d be inclined to answer no. Grilling alone does not cause cancer. However, the way you cook your meat could cause the creation of certain carcinogens that may or may not cause cancer in humans.
While we wait for more definitive studies to be conducted, there are some ways you can minimize your risk in case you are concerned or the research does eventually show there is a danger to humans, while still enjoying your steak, chicken, and burgers.
1. Cook the meat to a lesser degree of doneness. One of the recommendations I found was to cook the meat to only medium-rare (yuck!). More reasonable suggestions include turning down the heat and cooking it longer, cooking until brown, not black, and cutting the meat into smaller pieces, such as you would do with kebobs, to lessen the cooking time.
I’ve also recently discovered butterflying. To butterfly meat is to cut it horizontally, almost all the way through. This transforms it into two thinner cuts and allows the meat to be spread out wide on the grill and thus cook more thoroughly, faster. Learning of this cut has allowed me to return to Outback as they can now cook my steaks at least to an acceptable well done now.
2. Choose leaner cuts. Pick less fatty cuts of meat, or trim the fat before cooking. Less fat means less dripping, and that means less formation of PAHs.
3. If you do char your meat, cutting away the charred portion minimizes your intake of HCAs.
4. Marinate. Interestingly, some marinades have been shown to help lessen the formation of HCAs. Antioxidants like turmeric, basil, rosemary, and oregano all fall into this category. Marinating also reduces the meat’s surface temperature, which reduces charring.
5. Stay upwind. A 2015 Chinese study found that people who were exposed to barbeque smoke for an hour a day had a higher cancer risk than those who weren’t exposed.
6. Clean that grill. Scrubbing the grill top before or after each use, and periodically removing grease build up inside your grill can help reduce the formation of carcinogens.
7. Eat vegetables. Vegetables don’t cause the formation of HCAs and PAHs, even when grilled, so feel free to cook them as long as you want.
While I’ve got my fingers crossed that a study will eventually come out saying that the grilling carcinogen/human connection is just hogwash, I’ll probably incorporate some of these techniques. If for no other reason, maybe people won’t be afraid to let me grill for them like they are now. Weirdos.