May is National Grilling Month and the intoxicating aroma of smoky grilled meats and seafood will be wafting through the air all summer long across backyards from coast to coast.
Unfortunately, those sizzling steaks, burgers and ribs are also cooking up chemicals that can promote the spread of cancerous cells in your body.
The high heat from the grill reacts with proteins in red meat, chicken and fish to create heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are chemicals linked to cancer—and you can’t get rid of them simply by scraping off the char. Barbecuing produces the most HCAs of any cooking method, followed by pan-frying and broiling. Baking, poaching, stir-frying and stewing produce the least HCAs.
One of the best ways to minimize HCAs during the grilling process is to turn the food frequently, every two minutes or so.
Another strategy is to marinate before grilling. You can really slash those HCAs by marinating raw meat in a thin, very liquid sauce for at least 10 minutes. Marinating meat in antioxidant-rich spice blends can reduce the risk of HCAs forming by more than 80 percent, according to a study at Kansas State University.
The Cancer Research Center of Hawaii found that a teriyaki marinade reduced HCAs by 67%; a turmeric-garlic sauce cut HCAs in half.
The key is to use a watery sauce. A thick, concentrated marinade, such as a commercial barbecue sauce, can actually increase HCAs.
Of course, the added bonus is that marinades can also help make meat tender and add delicious flavor. Here are a few quick guidelines for the amount of time to marinate for best results:
- Tender meats: 1 to 2 hours
- Less tender cuts: 2 hours to overnight
- Chicken: ½ hour to 2 hours
- Fish: 15 to 60 minutes
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