There are two specific chemicals known to form when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry, hits the high temps of the grill: PAHs and HCAs. When fat and juices drip into the grill and cause the fire to flare up, those flames contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a compound that sticks to the meat on a grill’s grates. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs), on the other hand, form when amino acids (compounds that combine to form proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance stored in muscle fibers) react to high temperatures. The longer meat is subjected to the grill, the higher the concentration of HCAs.
Breathing in high quantities of these carcinogens or consuming food affected by them can have grave health consequences. Lab studies show both HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic, meaning they cause changes in DNA that may up the risk of some cancers, including pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer.
But, let's face it: A summer without grilling is like a summer without mojitos and frozen margaritas — we just can’t bear to imagine it. If you’re going to get your grill on, there are ways to cut down on those dangerous chemicals. A recent study found marinating meat in beer reduces the formation of PAHs, and previous research suggests a marinade of any kind acts as an inhibitor against HCAs. Other solutions, like trimming fat or even slightly pre-cooking meat indoors (in a microwave, for instance) before grilling can make for a safer BBQ experience.
It's not the grilling that's bad; meat-free foods, including veggies and fruits, will not produce HCAs or PAHs (hello, grilled pineapple!). Plus, grilling can be a healthy choice compared to, say, frying. Currently, there aren’t any federal guidelines suggesting how many times we can safely grill each summer season (or all year long if you’re the brave, winter-grilling type), but it’s probably not the best idea to cook every meal on your favorite patio appliance.