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Are grill marks on barbecued foods carcinogenic?

We ask the experts to settle common questions we've all wondered about.

Question: Barbecuing is a summer tradition in Canada. Is it true that those sought-after grill marks on barbecued foods are actually carcinogenic? Is there a healthy way to BBQ?

Answer: One of the most distinctive features of summer is the rich scent of barbecue wafting through the neighbourhood at dinnertime.

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Many Canadians look forward to cooking outdoors where we can enjoy the precious summer weather, while cutting back on dirty dishes. But methods of cooking food on the grill can have a serious impact on your health and may contribute to life-threatening disease.

When foods are charred and smoked at high temperatures, changes occur in the chemical structure of inherent fats, proteins and sugars, creating toxic compounds. Carcinogenic substances that have been linked to pancreatic cancer and other diseases include heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH'S).

PAHs are formed when foods have been exposed to smoke and charring. HCAs are produced by a chemical reaction between meat and high or prolonged heat. These chemicals are found in fried meat as well as barbecue.

However, you can limit the amount of HCAs produced by not overcooking or blackening your meat. Temperatures higher than 212 degrees Celsius promote the formation of toxic compounds.

More answers to common questions

There are several important tips for making barbequing safer. For example, avoid pouring marinade on meats while grilling as excess liquid drips can burn and cause flaming and charring.

Instead, marinate overnight and pat dry with paper towel before placing on the grill. It's best to use homemade marinades with citrus, spices and herbs such as rosemary, oregano and turmeric, because the sulphur and antioxidants in these ingredients can help reduce formation of HCAs during cooking.

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Wrap foods such as vegetables and potatoes in tinfoil before putting them on the grill to avoid direct contact with the flames. You can also cover your grill with perforated aluminum foil to prevent flare-ups. Thoroughly cleaning your barbecue with a proper grill brush and oil will remove left-over charred bits that could be harmful.

Overall, the key to healthy barbequing is to avoid charring and prolonged direct contact between the food and the flame.

Although there is no established measurement that determines what level of charred food consumption could cause cancer, balancing the frequency of barbecued meats with other cooking techniques like baking or steaming is a good approach.

As the saying goes, everything in moderation.

Nishta Saxena is a clinical dietician with the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at the Toronto General Hospital.

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