Grilled chicken is a healthier alternative to red meat, but the way you cook it does have an impact. If you’re eating charred chicken, you may be increasing your risk for ingesting cancer-causing substances known as “HCAs” and “PAHs.”
So, let’s take a look at how these chemicals form when you’re grilling meat.
According to the National Cancer Institute, Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are carcinogens. They’re chemicals that form when meat, poultry (including grilled chicken breast), or fish are cooked at high temperatures, such as frying, broiling, and barbecuing. HCAs form when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine or creatinine (substances found in muscle) react at high temperatures.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when fat and juices from meat are grilled directly over a heated surface (or open fire). The juices drip onto the surface or fire, causing flames and smoke. It’s the smoke that contains PAHs. They adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also form during other food preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.
HCAs and PAHs are considered mutagenic, meaning they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.
Population studies have not established a definitive link between HCA and PAH exposure from cooked meats and cancer in humans. One difficulty with conducting such studies is that it can be difficult to determine the exact level of HCA and/or PAH exposure a person gets from cooked meats.
But we do know that diets containing substantial amounts of red or preserved meats may increase the risk of various cancers, including colorectal cancer.
If you love to eat chicken and other grilled meats, you must be mindful of how you’re preparing them. Skinless chicken breast is a good source of lean protein and a healthier choice from the get-go. It contains fewer grams of fat and calories and is a much better choice than fried chicken.
But there are no specific guidelines for HCA/PAH consumption, so if you’re concerned about reducing your exposure to these cancer-causing chemicals, you can try to use one of several recommended cooking methods from the National Cancer Institute. They include:
The National Cancer Institute also provides a list of frequently asked questions about charred meat on its website.
In the end, if you’re not ready to make a move to veggie burgers, it’s about not overcooking your meats to keep them safe. If you’re looking for other cooking tips and ways to prepare healthy meals (even if you’re on the go) check out our guide “Eating Healthy on a Busy Schedule.”