Summer is the season for outdoor parties with barbecues and grills. However, new evidence suggests that charred food might not be the healthiest thing to consume. It might, in fact, become carcinogenic.

The Charred Truth

“Any time food gets burned or charred (at high temperatures) it becomes carcinogenic by creating a chemical called acrylamide, which doubles our cancer risk. This is especially true of starchy foods like bread and potatoes,” says Birgitta Lauren, pre and postnatal healthologist, fitness and nutrition expert.

Acrylamide is created when foods are browned. After acrylamide is ingested, it’s absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, distributed to all organs, and metabolized. The metabolite resulting from this, glycidamide, is often associated with tumor growth.

“Cooking with high temperature also produces advanced glycation end products or AGEs, which are harmful compounds linked to the development of diabetes,” she adds.

When meat is cooked at extremely high temperatures (such as 300ºF), chemical reactions produce HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Thus, grilled meat, well-done cuts, and barbecued chicken and steak have a high HCA concentration.

All foods become carcinogenic when burned. In fact, certain smoked foods can also be harmful. Moreover, charring foods—just like processing food—destroys its nutritional value. There are several cultures around the world that continue to eat charred food or ingredients. If you love your grills, read on to find out how to do it more healthfully.

Healthy Grilling Underway

There are no federal guidelines that address the consumption of foods containing HCAs and PAHs. “The FDA doesn’t regulate these chemicals so it’s up to us to limit exposure,” says Lauren. This doesn’t mean you have to give up grilling. Taking precautions to eliminate charring meat while grilling can help protect your health.

  • The American Cancer Society suggests avoiding parts of grilled meat that are burned and blackened, as those contain the highest levels of harmful toxins.
  • When ordering meat in restaurants, avoid getting it well-done because that often means tender on the inside and charred on the outside. Ask for your dish to be medium, or medium-well.
  • When shopping, opt for lean cuts of meat and trim the excess fat before placing your steaks or chops on the grill. Less fat means less potentially carcinogenic smoke that can come back into the meat.
  • Washing the food prior to cooking lessens the chances of charring.
  • Turn the meat frequently to prevent it from getting charred. Make sure the grill is cleaned before cooking to remove charred debris.
  • It’s all about not burning the food with either high heat or cooking for too long. So lower the temperature and cook on medium heat.
  • A marinade might also helps—garlic, rosemary, fruit, spice rubs like chili powder and paprika might lower HCA production. Even cooking with beer can decrease the effects of HCAs. However, avoid marinades with too much sugar, as it burns easily.
  • It’s best to cook food at home where you can monitor the temperature and the cooking process.

PS: Head to our Food section for healthy recipes and the latest food trends.
Find quick and easy Nutrition tips here.

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An alumnus of Asian College of Journalism, and Cardiff University, Wales, Yoshita Sengupta has more than five years of experience in writing for various news outlets. As Founder and Director of Underscore, a content solutions agency, she writes for multiple digital and print news outlets and consults brands. When not working for Underscore, she works with social entrepreneurs and homeless communities, which includes running a library for street children.