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Skip the Burgers and Throw Some Veggies on the Grill

Health concerns raised by barbecued meats spur new ideas for the summer cookout

FRIDAY, May 22 (HealthDay News) -- If you're given the choice between a grilled hamburger or a grilled Portobello mushroom this Memorial Day weekend, go for the veggie.

Eating meat that's charred or well-done raises the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a recent study. Grilled veggies don't carry the same risk.

"It doesn't mean if you eat well-done steak that you will get cancer, but it is more evidence to suggest a relationship exists between eating grilled meats and certain cancers," said Denise Snyder, a nutrition researcher at the Duke University School of Nursing. Snyder was not involved in the study, which was recently presented by Minnesota researchers at an annual cancer meeting.

While red meat and processed meats such as hotdogs are high on the list of foods to eat only in limited quantities, all meats -- including chicken, pork and fish -- can also generate a cancer-causing reaction when cooked on a hot grill, Snyder said.

"When you apply high temperature to any grilled meat, it breaks down the muscle proteins and creates a cancer-causing substance which can damage our DNA and genetic material," Snyder said. "That can jump-start the cancer development process."

In the study, which was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research's annual meeting in Denver in April, researchers used survey information about meat intake and preferred cooking methods from 62,581 participants.

Researchers found that those who preferred very well-done steak were 60 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared to those who ate steak less well-done or did not eat steak.

High heat is believed to cause a chemical reaction that transforms amino acids and creatine found in muscle tissue into carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines.

While not a call to give up the backyard barbecue, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

  • Try grilling more fruits and vegetables. Mushrooms, peaches, zucchini and pineapple are nutritional good choices and taste great when grilled. Skewer them to make grilling easier.
  • Use a meat thermometer to make sure you don't keep the food on the grill any longer than necessary and use the lowest temperature to cook your food thoroughly.
  • Microwave food for a short time before putting it on the grill and throw away the juices, which contain many of the potentially harmful chemicals.
  • Choose thinner, leaner cuts of meat or kabobs, which cook faster and cut down on the time carcinogens have to form. Also, flip food frequently to prevent charring.
  • Line the cooking surface with punctured foil to create a barrier between the coals and the meat. Flare-ups caused by dripping fat can coat the meat in smoke that contains cancer-causing substances.
  • Use marinades, some of which have been shown to reduce the formation of cancer-causing substances.
  • Raise your grill rack to keep the meat away from the direct heat.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more on diet and cancer.

-- Jennifer Thomas

SOURCE: Duke University Medical Center, news release, May 18, 2009

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