There is nothing like a good piece of steak or chicken on the grill. But is it safe to eat foods charred on the grill? According to the National Cancer Institute, more research is necessary, but there may be reasons to be cautious when eating very well done meats.
Cooking meat over an open flame on the grill produces chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In lab studies, these chemicals have been linked to changes in DNA that could increase the risk of cancer. HCAs are formed in meats cooked at high temperatures, while PAHs may be in other charred foods, fumes from car exhaust, and cigarette smoke.
HCAs are found in meat cooked for a long time, or meat cooked at high temperatures over the grill. An example would be a grilled, well-done steak or barbecued chicken breast. Exposure to smoke and charring can also cause meats to form PAHs.
Studies on animals exposed to HCAs and PAHs have found an increased risk of many different types of cancer, but it’s important to remember that animal models don’t always translate to humans. It’s also important to bear in mind that these studies used amounts of PAHs and HCAs significantly higher than what a person would consume.
There are human studies that have found associations between eating lots of well-done, barbecued, or fried meats and colon, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. But remember, an association doesn’t determine cause and effect—other factors may come into play. Still, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund did issue guidelines in 2007 that recommend limiting red and processed meats. There was no mention of HCAs and PAHs, however.
If you are concerned, the NCI provides some guidelines to reduce your risk:
Don’t expose your meat to a direct open flame, and avoid cooking for a long time at high temperatures (it’s still important to make sure your meat is fully cooked through—use the thermometer!)
Cook meat in the microwave first to reduce the time that it needs to be on the grill.
If you are using high heat, turn the meat continuously.
If you do accidentally char a portion of the meat, remove it before serving.