Is Charring Your Meat Dangerous?


To char or not to char, that is the question. Some love the taste of charred food, others don’t. In case you’re not sure of the difference, burning your food allows the proteins and sugars within it to reach a carbonized state. Char is much the same but the burn is stopped at the point where the introduced bitter taste is a welcomed flavor addition. You can char steak, potatoes, corn or just about anything else you cook over a grill or stove. However, a Google search will return many articles declaring that charring is dangerous and causes cancer, so we posed the question to Palomar Health Registered Dietician and Nutritionist Janice Baker.

“The poison is in the dose,” Baker said.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), charring meat, poultry and fish can lead to the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), carcinogens that may cause cancer. However, the AICR also cautions that diets high in red and processed meats increase the risk of colon cancer regardless of how you cook them, so we pivot back to Baker’s common sense approach to eating.

“If you eat a hot dog at a baseball game, no big deal,” Baker said. “But if you eat a hot dog every day, that’s another thing. That’s a pattern.”

The key is moderation in all things and a well-balanced diet. But if you are one to ignore advice and thrive on putting that outdoor grill to good use, there are some techniques that can lessen your carcinogenic exposure.

1. Substitute red meat with chicken or fish

2. Marinate meat for at least 30 minutes prior to cooking to reduce formation of HCAs

3. Pre-cook your meat (away from the grill) to reduce exposure time to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), another cancer-causing agent formed through smoke

4. Cook over a low flame, use indirect heat and flip meat frequently to reduce charring

5. Cut off any charred areas before eating

6. Grill fruits and vegetables which don’t form HCA (even when charred)

Something important to consider even more than charring is general food safety, Baker said. Food not prepared, handled or stored correctly or left out too long are all too common with backyard BBQs. 

“That’s what sends people to the emergency room and it’s awful.”

Another popular BBQ item that has far more carcinogens than charred meat is alcohol. Baker says if you take all the precautions to protect your meat from charring, such as wrapping your fish in aluminum foil, but then down eight beers, you are getting far more carcinogenic exposure from the alcohol than anything else. 

“That’s where you want to pay attention, trust me,” Baker said. “I ruin everyone’s party.”

So in conclusion, answering the headline question, is charring your meat dangerous, the answer is yes and no. Yes it can be dangerous in high doses, but no, it’s probably not what is going to cause you to go to the emergency room or even develop cancer in comparison to other, more likely sources.

Photo caption: Charring is short of burning food, which introduces a bitter taste to compliment other flavors.

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