The Side Effects of BBQ and What You Can Do About Them

If you're like me, right about now you're thinking about the first barbecue of the season. Whether your taste runs to baby back ribs, beer can chicken, or you're keeping it light with shrimp skewers, before you tear open your first bag of charcoal, there's something you should know. That delicious substance formed by grilling animal proteins could be carcinogenic.

The National Institute of Health has placed heterocyclic amines (HCAs), or chemicals produced during the grilling of meat, on its list of "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens." Although that list is one step down from the scarier list of "known to be human carcinogens," the risks are worth bearing in mind. The NIH says "MeIQ, MeIQx, and PhIP are heterocyclic amine compounds formed when meats and eggs are cooked or grilled at high temperatures." These compounds are also found in cigarette smoke. They are listed in the report as "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens" because oral studies in animals showed they caused cancer in multiple organs including the forestomach, colon, liver, oral cavity, mammary gland, skin, and cecum. Several human studies suggest "there is an increased risk for breast and colorectal cancers related to consumption of broiled or fried foods that may contain these or other similar compounds."

Bummer City, right? What delicious thing will they make bad for us next? Well, hold on to your tongs, because here are a few suggestions to reduce your risk while still enjoying that awesome grill flavor.

  • Marinating, aside from improving the flavor of the finished product, reduces the HCAs found in grilled meat, but ONLY if the meat is cooked for 30 minutes or less. If cooked longer, marinating can actually increase the quantity of HCAs.
  • Well-done or very well-done meat seems to be highest in HCAs. If you grill just to rare or medium-rare, you may reduce your risk.
  • Opt for beef or fish. Grilled chicken can produce 2-7 times the HCAs other meats produce. Even better, grilled vegetables contain no HCAs whatsoever, so enjoy them any time.
  • Limit your consumption of grilled meat, and of meat in general. Feasting on special occasions is one thing, but, much as I would wish it otherwise, grilled meat should not be an every day treat. When you DO splurge, use high-quality ingredients, and be sure to read up on the instructions that come with your grill. There's no point in eating something potentially bad for you if it doesn't taste amazing.

Photo: University of California, Berkeley College of Chemistry

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