It’s summer, the time when many of us fire up our grills. But grilling isn’t always a safe way to cook. 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. But there are ways to AVOID that problem.

When meat is cooked at high temperatures, amino acids react with creatine to form heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are thought to cause cancer. That?s why cooking meat by grilling, frying, or broiling is a problem. 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. 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 (and this smoke is what makes the meat TASTE so good). How long the meat is cooked is also a factor in heterocyclic amine formation; longer cooking time means more heterocyclic amines.

The solution? 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. Chemist J. Scott Smith has done a lot of research on marinades in his laboratory. He says, “We believe that addition of various substances to the meat before cooking may reduce the carcinogenic HCAs. Marinating steak before grilling is a practical way to reduce HCA contents of even well-done beef for many consumers.”

Smith’s group measured the HCAs in grilled round steaks and found that after marinating them with a commercial product containing rosemary and thyme, which are anitoxidants, reduced the cooked meat?s level of HCAs 87%.

The marinade containing rosemary and thyme had the greatest effect on reducing HCAs, but two other marinades with different herbs seasonings were tested and found to be almost as effective. The rosemary/thyme marinade also contained pepper, allspice and salt. Another marinade included oregano, thyme, garlic and onion. A third marinade had oregano, garlic, basil, onion and parsley. The marinades were all purchased in grocery stores. “These are the ones that are packaged as powders,” Smith says. “There are different brands. We followed the marinating instructions according to the label. We cooked it and it tasted fine.”

Grilling steaks in the laboratory? It?s a “nasty” job, but somebody?s got to do it!

Other tips that may make grilled meat safer to eat are: cook smaller pieces, since they cook more quickly and at lower temperatures. Choose leaner meat, because less fat should reduce flames and therefore smoke. Precook meat in the microwave: Doing this for as little as two minutes may decrease heterocyclic amines by 90%. Finally: flip frequently, so neither side has time to absorb or lose too much heat.

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