URI researchers ask, ‘Is your health at steak?’

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KINGSTON, R.I. – Nothing goes better with your Fourth of July fireworks than a backyard barbecue. But if you’re not careful, your grilled meats could be a health hazard.

According to two URI scientists, the charring on your steaks and burgers are heterocyclic amines or, if you’ve really charred it beyond recognition, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon. And they are nearly as bad as eating soot from your fireplace.

“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 certain drugs. “If you heat it really high, you can get both compounds on your meat, and the health danger increases. In fact, a recent study found that eating charred, well-done meat on a regular basis may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer by up to 60 percent.”

“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 and the American Cancer Society recommend 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.