WITH warm weather upon us, backyard barbecue season begins, shifting the action outdoors to replace the fried foods and fatty casseroles of indoor cooking with fresh no-added-fat grilling, which can give a flavorful sizzle not only to meat, poultry and fish but also to vegetables and fruits, says the July 2012 issue of the SpecialReport of the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter.

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend grilling (along with broiling, poaching and roasting) because cooking on a grill doesn’t add extra fat.

An easy and healthful way to cook just about anything — meats, veggies, fruits, even a homemade pizza — grilling is a more health-conscious option than frying, helps reduce the fat content of meats and is also a time to get creative with unique flavoring without excess calories, such as dry-rubbing spices on meat and mixing light marinades for extra flavor, says Jennifer Hall, a dietetic intern at Tufts’ Frances Stern Nutrition Center.

However, backyard cookouts bring their own potential hazards:

1) grilling meat, poultry and fish over high heat, especially to well done or to the point of charring, produces potentially cancer-causing compounds;

2) outdoor cookouts can fire up appetites, causing weight gain; and

3) barbecue season coincides with the peak of foodborne-illness season.

A few key reminders from the complete guide to summer food safety published in the June 2010 issue of Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, these picnic pointers include:

• Avoid cross-contamination at the grill by using separate brushes and utensils for raw and cooked meat.

• Boil leftover marinade before using as a sauce on food.

• On picnics, pack perishables separately from beverages to reduce the warming effects of frequently opening the lid.

Keep the cooler out of direct sun and use plenty of ice.

• Refrigerate leftovers within two hours, or one hour if temperatures top 90 degrees.

When muscle meats, including beef, pork, lamb, poultry and fish, are cooked at high temperatures — such as grilling over an open flame or hot coals — potentially cancer-causing compounds are formed, such as:

a) Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) - These compounds are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars and compounds found in muscle tissue called creatines combine at high heat (especially over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) or when cooked for a long time.

b) Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - These are formed and can adhere to the surface of meats when fat and meat juices drip onto coals and grill surfaces and flame up, when meat is smoked, and PAHs are found in charred surfaces.

These compounds are also present in cigarette smoke and car exhaust.

According to the National Cancer Institute (, “Population studies have not established a definitive link between HCA and PAH exposure from cooked meats and cancer in humans.”

Also, there are no guidelines for consumption of HCAs or PAHs found in meat.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and char that steak, warns the health letter.

Some studies have found evidence of a link between HCAs and PAHs and increased cancer risk in humans:

a) In 2001, National Cancer Institute researchers found an elevated risk associated with HCA intake when they compared 146 patients with colorectal adenomas (benign tumors that can become malignant) and 228 controls.

b) More recently, NCI scientists found that consumption of grilled meat and well-done or very well-done meat was associated with a greater than 50 percent increased risk of adenomas when they analyzed data on 1,008 participants among the 17,072 people in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial who developed colorectal adenomas.

c) Another new study of participants in the same trial with advanced adenomas or colorectal cancer suggested that extra risk from HCAs and PAHs may depend in part on genetic factors.

d) A 2011 study at the University of California-San Francisco concluded that higher intake of well-done grilled or barbecued red meat “could increase the risk of aggressive prostate cancer,” after looking at meat preparation and doneness patterns among 470 patients with aggressive prostate cancer and 512 healthy controls.

e) In 2009, University of Minnesota scientists found that individuals who preferred their meat well-done or very well-done — thus likely to contain more HCAs — were 60 percent to 70 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, when the researchers looked at the eating habits of more than 62,000 individuals who were followed for nine years.

Thus, the following tips are offered to help keep your summer grilling healthy and safe:

• Grilled plant foods such as veggie burgers have been found to have negligible or undetectable HCAs.

By contrast, the Cancer Project of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (a pro-vegetarian group), found that grilled foods containing the highest amounts of HCAs include boneless, skinless chicken breast, well-done; well-done grilled steak; barbecued pork; salmon grilled with skin; and grilled hamburger, well-done.

• A new Portuguese study found that grilling with coconut-shell charcoal produced significantly fewer HCAs and PAHs than regular wood charcoal, even at almost 400 degrees.

• Clean the “flavor bars” and lava rocks in your gas grill between cookouts because continuous grilling with the same charcoal, in which previously dripped fat combusts, resulted in higher HCAs and PAHs.

• Foods that have been marinated prior to grilling were lower in HCAs.

The American Heart Association recommends this universal marinade for meat, as well as for vegetables:

3 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
2 tbsp white or apple cider vinegar
3 cloves garlic (or 2 tsp)
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Combine all ingredients except oil in a bowl and whisk together.

Slowly drizzle in oil, whisking continually to form an emulsion. You can also combine all ingredients in a food processor, if you have one.

Makes four servings.

Two previous studies, both published in 2008, reported that marinating beef in beer or red wine before cooking significantly reduced HCA levels:

a) Portuguese researchers marinated beef samples in beer or red wine for up to six hours before cooking, then compared HCA levels to unmarinated controls — levels of the potential carcinogens were reduced 88 percent in the beer-marinated beef and 40 percent in the wine batch.

They also found that marinating for longer than two hours had negative effects on odor, color and overall quality;

b) In the second study, Kansas State University food scientists tested beef round steaks grilled at 400 degrees Fahrenheit — steaks marinated for an hour in a commercial marinade spice mix, prepared with oil, water and vinegar had 57 percent to 88 percent lower levels of HCAs.

Note that if you prefer not to spice up your meat, marinating in just oil, water and vinegar also cut HCA levels compared to unmarinated steaks.

• Choose lean cuts of meat and trim any visible fat (a good idea however you plan to cook).

• Precook meat with a brief zap in the microwave oven to shorten grilling time.

• Make sure meats are thoroughly defrosted in the refrigerator, so you don’t need to get the inside done.

• Use smaller cuts or cook kebob-style to minimize cooking time.

• Pile coals to one side of the grill or, on a gas grill, leave half the burners off.

Then, finish meats on the cooler side, using indirect heat.

• Try cooking on a water-soaked cedar plank, which adds flavor while protecting food from direct flames.

• Aluminum foil packets are another great way to grill flame-free.

Combine meat and veggies in a single pouch.

• Flip meat often rather than leaving one side exposed to the flames for prolonged periods.

• Remove any parts that become charred.

• Don’t grill to well-done unless you have to.

Although poultry and ground beef have to be thoroughly cooked (use a meat thermometer to make sure the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees for burgers and 165 degrees for poultry), the USDA says pork is safe when still slightly pink, at 145 degrees.

That’s the guideline for whole cuts of beef and lamb, too.

• Simply eating less meat (portion control) reduces your risk, too.

• Fill out your plate by tossing plenty of vegetables and fruits on the barbecue — vegetable kebobs make it easy to grill mushrooms, peppers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash and seasonal favorites.

Cook small vegetable pieces in inexpensive grill pans, to keep them from falling through the grate.

Hard veggies like potatoes and sweet potatoes can be microwaved until tender, tossed in a little oil and finished on the grill.

• Top your burgers with reduced-fat or fat-free cheese and watch the salt, especially in sauces and condiments.

• Pick whole-grain buns and rolls.

Instead of pie, serve grilled fruits for dessert — pineapple slices, peaches, plums and nectarines caramelize deliciously.

• Wash it all down with water, unsweetened iced tea or other sugar-free beverages, concludes the health letter.

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