Weekly Wellness: On the Grill

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COLUMBIA - If you're anything like me, summertime cooking means GRILLING. There's just something magical about grilled meat, grilled veggies, even grilled fruit! (Yes, you can grill fruit.)

One thing to keep in mind when you're grilling is that there can be some unhealthy downsides. Carcinogens. I'm not trying to tell you that your b-b-q is trying to kill you. It's not all that crazy. But there are some chemicals that are created when meats are cooked at high temperatures. These chemicals are called heterocyclic amines, also known as HCAs. (HCAs are also found in cigarette smoke.) HCAs can be created when meats are cooked at high temperatures and browned. HCAs are a result of the combination of creatine (an amino acid) and sugars, which are both found naturally in meats.

Some research has shown that exposure to high levels of these chemicals has caused cancer in animals. This research is inconclusive when it comes to humans, however, it is better to avoid these chemicals, if possible. We've known about these cancer-causing agents since 2002, and since then three more HCAs caused by grilling meat have been added to the list. The total HCA content will depend on how well-done you take your meat, and what kind you're eating.

Grilling-related HCA facts:

* Well-done meat has 3.5 times more HCA than medium-rare meat.

* Bacon appears to have the highest concentration.

* The second highest is from fried pork, followed by beef, and then chicken.

Here are some easy guidelines you can follow to protect yourself and your family:

* The more you cook and dry out your meat, the more HCAs are created. Cook your meat thoroughly, but avoid overcooking and charring your meat.

* Turn over your burger every minute and you'll slash HCAs by 75 to 90 percent by keeping the surface temperature lower.

* Microwave your burger for the first 90 seconds to two minutes of cooking and drain off the juices. This helps removed 90 percent of HCAs.

* Avoid the temptation to consume the drippings. Surprisingly, the drippings of well-done meat or poultry can have more HCAs then the meat does. Fewer drippings is another reason to choose low-fat meats.

* Marinating your meat is a great way to flavor your food and it reduces the carcinogens, too. Dipping your food in marinade, squeezing lemon or lime on it right before grilling or soaking it for hours will all help lower the HCAs. 

Hopefully, these tips will help you to have a happy and healthy grilling season!