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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Protection against cancer from the grill

Photo of meat on grill Pre-cooking a hamburger for a few minutes in the microwave removes up to 95 percent of HCAs. Finish meat on grill for that great grilled look and taste.

Although many Americans barbecue throughout the year, summer is by far the peak season for grilling. A study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, however, has shown that grilling leads to a range of carcinogens in meat. One class of these cancer-causing compounds, known as heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, develops when heat acts on amino acids and creatinine in animal muscle.

In general, the longer the cooking time and higher the heat, the more HCAs. Grilling causes the most, followed by pan-frying and broiling. Baking, poaching, stir-frying and stewing produce the least.

Based on work by UC Davis Cancer Center  research program members Jim Felton, Garrett Keating and Mark Knize, here are suggestions for limiting HCAs:

  • Before grilling, partially cook meat in the microwave, then discard the juices that collect in the cooking dish. Finish on the grill to preferred doneness. Pre-cooking a hamburger for a few minutes in the microwave removes up to 95 percent of HCAs.

  • Flip burgers often. Turning patties once a minute reduces HCA formation by up to 100 percent, probably by keeping internal meat temperatures lower.

  • Marinate before grilling. A Lawrence Livermore study showed that marinating chicken for 40 minutes with a mixture of brown sugar, olive oil, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice and salt cut HCAs by 92 to 99 percent.

  • Use a meat thermometer. Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165° to 180° F., ground beef, pork and lamb to between 160° and 170°, and beef steaks and roasts to 145° to 160°. Don't cook meat to “well done.”

  • Eat cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and brussels sprouts, one or two days before you barbecue. All contain compounds that activate enzymes in our bodies that detoxify HCAs.