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Tips for safer and healthier grilling, from the Harvard Health Letter

Ruining a piece of meat isn’t the only thing you need to worry about if you’re cooking at high temperatures. High heat can also produce chemicals with cancer-causing properties, reports the June 2007 issue of the Harvard Health Letter.

When meat is cooked at high temperatures, amino acids react with creatine to form heterocyclic amines, which are thought to cause cancer. That’s why cooking meat by grilling, frying, or broiling is the problem. Grilling is double trouble because it also exposes meat to cancer-causing chemicals contained in the smoke that rises from burning coals and any drips of fat that cause flare-ups. How long the meat is cooked is also a factor in heterocyclic amine formation; longer cooking time means more heterocyclic amines. Depending on the temperature at which it’s cooked, meat roasted or baked in the oven may contain some heterocyclic amines, but it’s likely to be considerably less than in grilled, fried, or broiled meat.

Marinating meat is often suggested as one way to cut down on the formation of heterocyclic amines, but the evidence that marinating helps is mixed. The Harvard Health Letter suggests some other tips that may make grilled meat safer to eat:

  • Cook smaller pieces: They cook more quickly and at lower temperatures.
  • Choose leaner meat: Less fat should reduce flames and therefore smoke.
  • Precook in the microwave: Doing so for two minutes may decrease heterocyclic amines by 90%, according to some research.
  • Flip frequently: That way, neither side has time to absorb or lose too much heat.

Also in this issue of the Harvard Health Letter

  • Meat in the hot seat
  • A more D-manding diet
  • Who needs to be taking aspirin for cardiovascular protection?
  • The not-soy-good results
  • In Brief: Tai chi gives immune system a boost
  • In Brief: Cocoa beats tea
  • In Brief: Prescription fish oil
  • By the way, doctor: Does grapefruit juice affect aspirin?
  • By the way, doctor: Should I worry about this irregular heartbeat?

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.