Memorial Day means barbeque, but while grilling is low fat, tasty and enjoyable, it can also present some health risks if not done properly.

Although no direct studies link cancer and barbequing proteins, researchers have found that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbequed meats are associated with an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The danger arises from heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), two chemicals formed when beef, pork, fish or poultry are cooked using high temperatures, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open frame. HCAs and PAHs are both mutagenic – that is, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.

"Grill marks on chicken or meat  are HCAs that form when meat and high heat are combined," says Emily Rubin, a registered dietician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. "The more grill marks, the more HCAs are on your meat."

PAHs are caused by meat drippings hitting the grill, says Rubin. "Chefs are at the most risk for inhaling PAHs," she says.

Formation of HCAs and PAHs varies by meat type, cooking method, and whether a dish is rare, medium or well done. Well-done grilled meat or barbequed chicken tends to contain higher concentrations of HCAs.

  • Although no federal guidelines address the consumption of foods containing HCAs/PAHs, there are several ways you can reduce your exposure. They include:

  •   Go fish. Beef, pork and poultry tend to form more HCAs than seafood because of their higher amino acid content and longer grilling times.

  •   Cook rare. Less cooking time means fewer chemicals.

  •   Microwave. Use a microwave oven to pre-cook meats before hitting the grill to cut cooking times.

  •   Flip. "Continuously turning or flipping meat can reduce the amount of HCA's," says Rubin.

  •   Cut the char. Remove charred portions of meat and don't use gravy made by meat drippings.

  •  Marinate and use spices and herbs. "Not only will this give your meat and chicken great flavors, but there will be fewer grill marks and reduced amounts of fat drippings and smoke," says Rubin. Antioxidants in marinades that include wine or beer may block HCAs from forming. Rubbing antioxidant-rich rosemary or thyme on your proteins may cut HCA levels by 100 percent.

  •  Bring on the veggies. Adding vegetables, particularly cruciferous ones, to the menu can help clear DNA damaging compounds.

  •  Avoid fat. "Choose low fat meats or trim the fat first," says Rubin. "The higher the fat, the more drippings and smoke. Try 85-90% lean ground meat or ground turkey breast."

  •  Share the cooking. To avoid inhaling too many PAHs, Rubin recommends that "if there is more than one person who can grill, take turns."

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