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How does grilling affect your health?

Lankenau Medical Center August 15, 2014 General Wellness By Marisa Weiss, MD

If you’re like me, grilling is a big part of what makes summer fun. To make your cookout as healthy as possible, try to follow these steps.

Start with unprocessed meats

Researchers are beginning to tease out the differences between eating processed versus unprocessed meat. Processed meat includes hot dogs, sausage, pepperoni, bacon, and lunch meats. Many scientists now think that some of the risks thought to come from eating meat in general are actually from eating processed meats. We don’t know much about the relationship between eating processed meats and breast cancer risk. Still, Harvard researchers have said eating processed meat appears to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer, and unprocessed meat does not. Plus, processed meat usually has about 4 times the sodium, added nitrate preservatives, and less protein and iron.

Consider what your meat eats

If you have access to and can afford grass-fed beef, it may be worthwhile. It appears to offer better nutritional value than grain-fed beef. The University of California Cooperative Extension says that beef from grass-fed cows is higher in vitamins A and E, omega-3 fatty acids (also found in fish), and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another beneficial fatty acid. Organic beef doesn’t mean 100 percent grass-fed beef, so you’ll have to look for labeling that specifies “grass-fed.” And grass-fed beef isn’t always organic, so again, look for “organic, grass-fed” on the package if that’s what you want.

The skinny on organic meat

You may choose to pay more for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified organic meat. This means the animals have:

  • eaten organically produced feed and no animal by-products
  • received no growth promoters or hormones
  • received no medications, such as antibiotics, unless they’re sick
  • fed for at least a third of the year on pasture

Other types of meat are available that have some of the features of organic meat but aren’t certified organic. The USDA definitions of these meat labels are:

  • “Natural” means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.
  • “No hormones” can appear on beef labels if the producer provides proof that no hormones were used in raising the animals. Hormones aren’t allowed in raising hogs or poultry.
  • “No antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if the producer provides proof that the animals were raised without preventive antibiotics (meaning they only got antibiotics if they were sick).

Add the marinade, add the vegetables

Research shows that marinating meats can reduce the amount of a group of chemicals—heterocyclic amines (HCAs)—that form when meat is grilled or cooked at high temperatures until well done. The longer and hotter the cooking, the more HCAs are formed, especially in the blackened parts of the meat. The National Cancer Institute has identified 17 HCAs that may pose a human cancer risk.

One study used store-bought marinades rich in various mixtures of herbs. Some herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, sage, and garlic, have already been shown to reduce HCAs. The researchers believe it’s the herbs (rather than other aspects of marinade) that provide this beneficial effect. So, start marinating!

Also, researchers who looked closely at meat eating and breast cancer risk found that a high lifetime intake of grilled, barbecued and smoked meats was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in women who ate few fruits and vegetables. Another good reason to eat more vegetables.

Cook until done—not overdone—and no charring

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are another class of possible carcinogens linked to breast cancer that can come from grilling meat and other foods. On meat, PAHs form when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. The flames contain PAHs that then stick to the surface of the meat. PAHs also can form during other food prep processes, such as when meat is smoked. PAHs can be found in other charred foods, including vegetables, as well as in cigarette smoke and car exhaust.

Tips to make your next barbecue sizzlingly healthy:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat and trim the fat to avoid creation of PAHs.
  • Grill at lower temperatures and consider precooking meat off the grill (but not broiling or pan-frying — they cause the same problems).
  • Skip “blackened” recipes and trim off any accidental charred or burned parts.
  • Avoid overcooking and undercooking by having a meat thermometer handy and knowing the correct final temperature for whatever you’re grilling. The USDA has a downloadable brochure that lists proper “done” temperatures for each type of meat.
  • Grill any kind of vegetables imaginable, but don’t char them, either. HCAs form only on meat, but PAHs can form on anything.
  • If you grill indoors, make sure to have good ventilation and use the hood fan over the stove.

I hope these grilling tips are useful to you. Enjoy the summertime!

This article originally appeared on the breastcancer.org ‘Think Pink, Live Green’ column.

Marisa Weiss, MD is a radiation oncologist at Lankenau Medical Center and the founder of breastcancer.org.