Your Health


As the barbeque season begins, some well-meaning guardians of health are filling the Internet with new ways to make good food taste bad, according to science writer Deborah Franklin.


Oh, dear. They do mean well.

In the last few years, researchers have confirmed that cooking meat too long over a dry, intense heat creates small amounts of at least two kinds of compounds that can lead to cancer. Unfortunately, that's just the sort of flavor-enhancing fire you get on a backyard barbeque.

Go ahead. Scrape off the black crispy bits all you want. That will reduce one type of carcinogen, but not the other, which forms deeper inside the meat. To keep this second type from forming, you have to keep the meat moist and avoid high heat that lasts longer than about ten minutes. The problem is, to avoid food poisoning, you must cook your burger or chicken to a high enough temperature to kill E. coli and other gut-wrenching bugs. That's where the goofy recipes come in. Dozens of them, circulating on the internet and beyond, all claiming to keep the cancer-causing chemicals at bay.

Last weekend, in a friend's backyard, I did a little taste test with some of the weirder ideas. I checked in with some scientists, too. Here's what I learned.

The American Cancer Society thinks you should pre-cook the meat, maybe by microwaving it first. Others recommend wrapping a burger in tin foil, with a few teaspoons of water. I have to tell you, lemon and dill seasoned salmon cooked in foil over hot coals is tender, moist, and delicious. But steamed hamburgers? Even doused in ketchup, that burger tasted terrible.

On the other hand, soaking raw chicken in marinade for ten minutes before you cook it will keep those outer layers moist and help keep carcinogens from forming. If marinades aren't for you, use less meat in your recipe. Pretty much anything that dilutes the meat dilutes the carcinogens, too.

In northern Michigan, a popular butcher mixes ground cherries into his ground round. When I told my friend Abe that barbequing might be risky, he was thrilled. I've already given up drinking, smoking, and motorcycles, he said. It's nice to know I have one reckless habit left.

Life is short. It can be shifty, too. We might dodge this weekend's beef-kabob only to be quietly maimed by a dash of Aflatoxin in our organic peanut butter. So my advice this Memorial Day is slap on some sunscreen, pull up a lawn chair, and have a little fruit salad or broccoli with your burger.

There are no health guarantees, for heavens sake. Let's eat.

INSKEEP: Deborah Franklin is a science writer based in San Francisco.

You can find a lot more tips for healthy grilling, including why it is important to leave the skin on your chicken, at

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