A poolside plate of grill-marked dinner is as iconically summer as it gets. It may be tempting to flaunt your BBQ prowess with that perfect crosshatched pattern, but did you know that too much char can increase our chances for some serious health issues? Chef and holistic health counselor, Pamela Salzman, is teaching us all we need to know about carcinogens – from what they are to how we can avoid their potentially damaging effects (without sacrificing any pit-master pride)…
Q: WHAT ARE CARCINOGENS?
A: Unfortunately, today everyone knows a friend, a parent, a loved one or even a child who has been affected by the life-altering disease of cancer. What many people don’t know is that cancer is not purely genetic: Our lifestyle, diet and environmental exposures can strongly predict whether or not we are more prone to developing cancer. Tobacco, infectious agents, radiation and pollution can all promote cancer, and for this reason are called carcinogens.
The mechanism by which carcinogens lead to cancer may be a little confusing. Let’s take a quick look at how exactly we get to cancer from these cancer-causing agents and clarify certain misconceptions:
Not all carcinogens affect DNA directly, but they can lead to cancer in other ways: Some carcinogens may induce cells to divide more rapidly, increasing the chances that DNA changes will occur.
It doesn’t always lead to cancer: Chances are you have been exposed to carcinogens, but let’s not panic. Carcinogens have varying levels of cancer-causing potential. So, cancer may only form when you have been exposed to the carcinogen over long periods and at high levels of exposure. Furthermore, our DNA is equipped to repair itself and attack mutations in our genes. However, the degree to which it does so is unique among each individual.
Every person’s risk of developing cancer is different: It is impossible to pinpoint one factor that causes cancer. Cancer is caused by a multitude of factors like the length and intensity of the exposure, the person’s DNA, age and gender.
Q: WHAT’S THE CONCERN with using or eating them?
A: The simple answer is that they can negatively affect our bodies and possibly lead to more serious issues. But exposure to many carcinogens is out of our control. That said, we have the ability to be conscientious of our environment and make better choices to reduce exposure in our control. Here are a few, but not all, ways to protect ourselves from carcinogens in your home and environment:
Keep your distance from tobacco products: It is no surprise that tobacco smoke carcinogens influence DNA and can lead to cancer.
Limit alcohol consumption: No need to fret, you can still indulge in your glass of wine. However, high consumption of alcohol is strongly associated with developing several types of cancer.
Reduce exposure to pesticides: Buy organic food as much as possible.
Throw out your Teflon cookware ASAP: Teflon and nonstick cookware are harmful to your health! Switching these out with safer cookware like cast iron and stainless steel will minimize your exposure to carcinogens.
Limit exposure to chemicals: There are many carcinogenic chemicals in our everyday lives that we can try to avoid, such as tetrachloroethylene used in dry cleaning; titanium dioxide in cosmetics, paints and plastics; and others that can be researched at ewg.org.
Q: HOW DO WE AVOID CARCINOGENS WHEN cooking?
A:With summertime in full bloom, it is time for us to fire up the grill and enjoy our favorite summer foods. While grilling gives our meats their signature smoky taste, it can also greatly increase your exposure to carcinogens. Carcinogens may have the upper hand when it comes to cancer, but here are four ways to fight against them when grilling and frying:
Marinate your meats before grilling: Marinating your meats, even for a small amount of time, with certain foods, like garlic, rosemary, wine and beer, will not only add flavor, but it can seriously reduce the amount of carcinogens.
Resist the temptation – avoid eating the char: When eating these crispy, burnt pieces of meat, you are also consuming carcinogens.
Use leaner cuts of meat: Dripping fat causes flare-ups, which can cause carcinogens to enter the meat.
Choose quicker-cooking cuts: Thinner cuts of meat and poultry cook more quickly and therefore are exposed to the grill for less time.