Reduce Your Exposure to Toxins from Grilled Meats

Studies have indicated that PAH levels rise in concert with cooking temperatures of grilled meat, as well as proximity of meat to the heat source.

PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), found in grilled, charred, pan-fried, and smoked meats, are drawing increasing concern over their potentially toxic effects on health.

What are PAHs? PAHs are a group of over 100 different chemicals formed by the incomplete burning of meat, as well as coal, oil, gas, tobacco, and garbage. While PAHs may find their way into the food stream through environmental contamination of air and water, one major route of exposure is through grilled, charred, pan-fried, and smoked animal proteins (meats), including pork, poultry, fish, and beef.

Cook Your Meat Safely 

  1. Trim visible fat and skin from meat before cooking.
  2. Marinate meats at least 30 minutes prior to cooking, using a mixture of vinegar, lemon juice or wine, a touch of olive oil if desired, and herbs and spices.
  3. Before grilling, pre-cook meat in the microwave, oven or stove to cut down time on the open flame; discard any juices before grilling.
  4. Avoid overcooking meats, while ensuring meat is cooked to an adequate internal temperature to destroy any foodborne pathogens: 165°F for poultry, 160°F for ground meats, and 145°F for steaks, pork and seafood.
  5. Keep food at least 6 inches from the heat source when grilling.
  6. Flip burgers and other grilled meat products, such as sausages and chicken breasts, often, about once every minute.
  7. Keep a small bottle filled with water near your barbeque to quickly prevent any flare-ups during grilling.

How do they form in meats? According to the National Cancer Institute, PAHs are formed when the juices and fat from grilled meats drip onto the fire or heat source, causing flames. The flames produce PAHs, which then adhere to the surface of the meat. In addition, the American Institute for Cancer Research notes that high-temperature cooking methods, such as pan-frying, can also promote the formation of PAHs. Studies have indicated that PAH levels rise in concert with cooking temperatures of grilled meat, as well as proximity of meat to the heat source. The concentration of PAHs is highest in the skin and fatty portions of meat.

How are they harmful? According to the National Research Council’s report Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, studies show that laboratory animals develop tumors in the gastrointestinal tract lungs when they are exposed to PAHs in food. However, their exposure was extremely high—thousands of times higher than most people would consume in a normal dietary pattern. Yet, population studies have found that PAH exposure through cooked meats also has been associated with cancer in humans.

How can you cut PAHs in meats? You can cut your exposure to PAHs through better cooking techniques. While limiting barbequed meats and avoiding charred meats altogether is recommended, you can reduce the formation of toxins in meats with our simple steps in Cook Your Meat Safely.

— McKenzie Hall, RD

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