Cooking animal flesh over a hot open flame triggers a series of chemical reactions that yield a meal loaded with carcinogens. Scientists have been warning us about this danger for two decades. Cancer-causing compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) can form, particularly when cooking animal flesh over high heat, which is common when barbequing. These chemicals – the same chemicals that are found in cigarette smoke – have been shown to cause cancer.
Is there a solution; a way to avoid filling your body with HCAs? Don’t grill your meat (or don’t eat meat at all, since research suggests grilling vegetables does not generate HCAs). The trouble with that “solution” is that we’ve been
cooking dinner over open fires for two million years. Taking pleasure in grilling meat over a fire is so deeply ingrained in our blood that most people aren’t about to change.
That said, researchers studying the production of heterocyclic amines during the cooking process have discovered a number of “tricks” that may reduce the risks posed while barbequing, either by interfering with the creation of HCAs or inactivating them once they’re formed. For example, precooking a hamburger patty for two minutes in a microwave before barbequing reduces heterocyclic amines by a whopping 90 percent, according to research. Adding vitamin antioxidants to the meat or marinating it in antioxidant-rich spices before cooking appears to work almost as well. When it comes to marinades, there are also important things to know. First, not just any marinade seems to work – old-style tomato-based barbecue sauces actually increase heterocyclic amine production, while marinades like teriyaki sauce reduce heterocyclic amines produced during cooking by half. Those packets of store-bought powder marinades that you add oil and vinegar to also seem to be surprisingly effective.
There is also another approach to reducing the harm caused by heterocyclic amines. A number of foods have been identified that neutralize heterocyclic amines in the intestine and prevent them from causing DNA damage. For example,
several studies suggest that the Lactobacilli strains in yogurt do this, so serving yogurt on or with meat meals provides additional protection because it actually reduces the harmful effects of these chemicals. The bottom line for anyone who wants to cook meat, whether chicken, beef, pork or anything else on the grill is simple – make sure to marinate all meats before cooking. When cooking ground beef, knead in herbs and/or vitamin E. Stick with skinless chicken if cooking poultry. Always accompany barbecued meat with a yogurt dish and a little alcohol, preferably stout ale; and use a yogurt salad dressing or even something as simple as frozen yogurt for dessert. And, remember that you can cook vegetables on the grill without the danger of heterocyclic amine formation – and increase the nutritional content of your meal at the same time.