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Food Safety Feature Articles


Can eating grilled meats cause a cancer risk?

Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Bates County, University of Missouri Extension


Summer is a time when everyone moves outdoors for as many activities as possible, including grilling out. It’s hard to beat the flavor of a hot grilled hamburger, but does eating it put you at risk for cancer?


Cooking muscle foods such as chicken, pork and beef at high temperatures does create a chemical that is not present in uncooked meat. That chemical is called heterocyclic amine or HCA. This chemical is formed when amino acids (the building blocks of the protein in meat) and creatine (a substance naturally present in muscles) are exposed to high cooking temperatures. This includes frying, broiling and grilling.


There are ways to decrease the amount of HCA’s formed when grilling meat. According to a fact sheet published by the National Cancer Institute, meats that are partially cooked in the microwave two minutes prior to grilling have a 90% decrease in HCA content. There is a further reduction in the amount of HCA’s if the juice that forms during microwave cooking is poured off before final cooking is done. There is another important food safety issue to note when pre-cooking meat in the microwave. It should be done just before the meat is transferred to the grill. Cooking in the microwave and holding for an extended period of time can increase the chance of bacteria growth.


Another potentially harmful substance, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, form when fat from meat drips onto hot coals. PAH’s are then contained in the smoke and flames and get deposited on the food. PAH’s also form directly on charred food.


The best way to prevent PAH’s from forming on food is to use lean cuts of meat that won’t drip fat onto the coals. Another way to prevent this is to push the coals to the sides of the grill and place the meat in the middle so fat doesn’t drip on the coals.


To prevent the formation of both HCA and PAH, grill meats at a lower temperature and away from a direct flame. Marinating foods before grilling also helps to decrease the amount of some of the chemicals that form during grilling.


There is no recommendation for the amount of grilled meat or meat cooked at high temperatures that you can eat and still be safe. The best recommendation is to take the steps outlined to decrease the amount of harmful chemicals that form during grilling or exposure to high temperatures.


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Last update: Monday, July 30, 2012