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is there a safe way to grill meats and reduce or avoid PAHs?

July 27, 2014

Thanks for your great question! 

Before we continue, let's discuss what PAHs are for the general audience. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when meat from muscle, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry, is cooked using high-temperature, direct-heat methods, such as grilling directly over an open flame. The formation of PAHs are influenced by the type of meat, the cooking time, the cooking temperature, and the cooking method. Exposure to PAHs can cause cancer in animals; however, whether such exposure causes cancer in humans is unclear. However, ongoing studies are being investigated to determine if any associations exist between meat intake, meet cooking methods, and cancer risk. Also, there are no Federal guidelines addressing consumption levels of PAHs formed in meat.

PAHs have been found to be mutagenic in animals—that is, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.

The formation of PAHs vary by meat type, cooking method, and "doneness" level (rare, medium, or well done). Whatever the type of meat, however, meats cooked at high temperatures, especially above 300ºF (as in grilling), or that are cooked for a long time tend to form more HCAs. For example, well done, grilled, or barbecued chicken and steak all have high concentrations of HCAs. 

Despite the current evidence not substantiating any concern for PAH consumption and increased health issues, a few things you can do to reduce PAH levels in food include:

- precooking (such as boiling) your meats partially (to 85-100 degrees) before smoking or grilling.

- place meat in aluminum foil in order to reduce direct heat exposure

- continuously turn meat while grilling to prevent charring

- grilling at a lower heat so the meat takes longer to produce grill marks and cooks more evenly inside and out (this will prevent charring as well)

I hope this information helps! Happy Eating!

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