Is your health at steak?

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 6, 2010 – Grilling season is in full swing, and the age-old question hangs in the air: Would you like a side of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines with your porterhouse?

That black stuff on your grilled burgers and steaks — either the amines or, if you’ve really charred it beyond recognition, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon — is nearly as bad as eating soot from your fireplace, and can actually be hazardous to your health, according to two URI scientists.

“If you analyze what’s in the char, you’ll find all these compounds that are not found in normal meat and chicken, created by the heating. And they are known mutagens,” says Bongsup Cho, a URI professor of pharmacy whose research examines the DNA damage caused by consuming organic carcinogens and drugs. “If you heat it really high, you can get both compounds on your meat, and the health danger increases,” said Cho.

“We like the smoky flavor that a little bit of charring on the grill provides, but there’s a catch to it – it’s not good for you,” said Rainer Lohmann, associate professor at the Graduate School of Oceanography who studies organic pollutants in the environment.

To prevent this, the National Cancer Institute recommends that beef and chicken be cooked in a microwave for 3-5 minutes just before putting it on the grill. The liquid that comes out of the meat tissue during the microwave process contains most of the ingredients that form the carcinogenic compound when grilled. The URI scientists note, though, that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can be formed on your grilled meat regardless of whether it is microwaved first or not. It is produced by extreme temperatures through the incomplete combustion of whatever fuel you use in your grill.

“If you cook it rare or medium, you’re not going to get these compounds, but if you overheat it and make it charred, the chemical reaction initiates formation of these foreign chemicals, which are the same chemicals as in cigarette smoke,” Cho added.