Health Column: Diminishing cancer risk of barbecuing

Grab the tongs, put on the chef’s apron and fire up the grill. Warm weather sets picnic fever in motion and according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, four out of five American households will be polishing up the backyard grill for the season.

If you plan to grill out on Memorial Day you’re not alone: the May holiday is one of the top grilling days, though many Americans do grill year round. Whether for a family gathering, a beach party or an informal backyard soiree, we love to grill, and hamburgers, steak, chicken, hot dogs and ribs are America’s favorites.

But all that grilled meat may be a problem.

When meat, poultry and fish are cooked with high temperatures, especially when well-done or charred, two cancer-causing compounds, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), form. These substances can damage DNA and may increase risk for colon cancer.

Keep in mind that too much red meat — more than 18 ounces per week — and any amount of processed meat, such as hot dogs, are factors that increase colorectal cancer risk on their own, so grilling and eating big portions of these foods may mean added risk. But the good news is there are ways to celebrate the backyard barbecue and, with a few simple strategies, to be a little healthier.

Add some color to your grill. Asparagus, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant and corn on the cob are favorites and grilling brings out flavors that even picky eaters enjoy. Cut vegetables into chunks for kabobs or cook them in a grill basket. Or toss with a small amount of olive oil and grill them whole.

Fruits are another means of healthy eating from the grill. Cut fruit before putting it on the grill: apples, peaches and pears can be halved and bananas split lengthwise. Use fruit that is about a day or two away from being completely ripe so it holds its texture better. If you brush fruit or the grill with a bit of oil, it won’t stick, and remember to watch it closely so it doesn’t get overdone. Serve as is, with a sprinkle of cinnamon or a dollop of plain frozen yogurt.

There are steps for safer grilling. Think low and slow. Slow down the cooking time with a low flame to limit burning and charring. Cooking meats at a lower temperature reduces the amount of the carcinogens, HCA and PAH. Also, cut off any visible fat to reduce flare-ups. Cook food in the center of the grill and move coals to the side to prevent fat and juices from dripping on them and cut off any charred portions of the meat.

Marinate the meat. Mix up a marinade with herbs and vinegar or lemon juice and keep the meat steeping in the fridge while you prepare the side dishes. Marinating meat has been shown to reduce formation of HCAs and, although it’s not clear why, some evidence points to the acids, vinegar and citrus, or the herbs’ antioxidant content. Even just 30 minutes in the marinade can help. And the bonus is your guests will rave about the tenderness and added flavor from the marinade.

Partially pre-cook the meat. You can do this in the microwave or oven or on the stove to help reduce the amount of time the meat is exposed to high heat on the barbecue. Enjoy the aroma and flavor from grilling but minimize the risks. To ensure safe food handling, just be sure to put the food on the preheated grill immediately to complete cooking.

This column is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research, which fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity an weight management to cancer risk.