PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), found in grilled, charred, pan-fried and smoked meats, are drawing increasing concern over their potentially toxic effects on health.
What are PAHs?
PAHs are a group of more than 100 different chemicals formed by the incomplete burning of meat, as well as coal, oil, gas, tobacco and garbage. While PAHs may find their way into the food stream through environmental contamination of air and water, one major route of exposure is through grilled, charred, pan-fried and smoked animal proteins (meats), including pork, poultry, fish and beef.
How do they form?
According to the National Cancer Institute, PAHs are formed when the juices and fat from grilled meats drip onto the fire or heat source, causing flames. The flames produce PAHs, which then adhere to the surface of the meat. In addition, the American Institute for Cancer Research notes that high-temperature cooking methods, such as pan-frying, can also promote the formation of PAHs. Studies have indicated that PAH levels rise in concert with cooking temperatures of grilled meat, as well as proximity of meat to the heat source. The concentration of PAHs is highest in the skin and fatty portions of meat.
How are they harmful?
According to the National Research Council's report Diet, Nutrition and Cancer, studies show laboratory animals develop tumors in the gastrointestinal tract and lungs when they are exposed to PAHs in food. However, their exposure was high — thousands of times higher than most people would consume in a normal dietary pattern. Yet population studies have found that PAH exposure through cooked meats also has been associated with cancer in humans.
How can you cut PAHs?
You can cut your exposure to PAHs through better cooking techniques. While limiting barbecued meats and avoiding charred meats altogether is recommended, you can reduce the formation of toxins in meats with simple steps:
1. Trim visible fat and skin from meat before cooking.
2. Marinate meats at least 30 minutes prior to cooking, using a mixture of vinegar, lemon juice or wine, a touch of olive oil if desired, and herbs and spices.
3. Pre-cook meat in the microwave, oven or stove to cut time on an open flame; discard any juices before grilling.
4. Avoid overcooking meats, while ensuring meat is cooked to an adequate internal temperature to destroy any food-borne pathogens: 165 degrees for poultry, 160 degrees for ground meats, and 145 degrees for steaks, pork and seafood.
5. Keep food at least 6 inches from the heat source in grilling.
6. Flip burgers and other grilled meat products, such as sausages and chicken breasts, often, about once every minute.
7. Keep a small bottle filled with water near your barbecue to quickly prevent any flare-ups.