Whether you’re firing up the barbecue or trying to get a crispy char on your oven-roasted potatoes, the last thing you expect is for your home-cooked meal to raise your risk of cancer. However, grilling and other high-heat cooking methods can be quite harmful to you and your family’s health.

Here’s what you need to know about carcinogens in high-heat cooking methods.

What Are Carcinogens?

A carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Many different substances, chemicals, and household objects can be carcinogenic, including tobacco, alcohol, and formaldehyde.

Cooking meats at high temperatures, usually while grilling or panfrying, produces carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are more likely to develop when a meat is cooked above 300 degrees Fahrenheit, is cooked for a long period of time, or when the meat develops char marks.

In addition, when animal fat or juices hit hot coals or open flame, another carcinogen known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) can develop. The smoke produced by this dripping contains the PAHs, and adheres to the meat. PAHs are found in smoked meats along with barbecued foods.

Acrylamide is another carcinogen that forms naturally when starchy foods like potatoes or grains are cooked at high temperatures. French fries, potato chips, burnt roasted potatoes, and foods made out of grains like cookies or cereals, can lead to the development of acrylamide.

How Do Carcinogens Cause Cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, studies show that the consumption of HCAs and PAHs can lead to the development of cancer in animals.

One study saw the development of tumors in rodents fed a diet with HCAs, and another saw the development of certain cancers in rodents fed PAHs. However, the amounts of carcinogens consumed in these studies are much lower than what we would likely eat during a normal meal.

A study from the National Toxicology Program examined the effects of high acrylamide levels on rats and mice. Through this research, experts also observed higher levels of cancer development in the rodents who were exposed to high levels of this carcinogen.

In humans, studies showed that eating high amounts of processed and well-done meats could increase the risk of certain types of cancer, including pancreatic and prostate cancer. Based on these results, it is important to eat these foods sparingly to reduce our cancer risk.

How to Avoid Carcinogens When Cooking

There are plenty of delicious cooking methods you can use to spice up your dishes while avoiding carcinogens – from fresh sautés to light roasting and everything in between. Avoid high-heat methods as often as possible, and avoid overcooking or burning your meat.

If you are grilling or using another carcinogen-prone cooking method, avoid the development of these PAHs by choosing to grill fruits, veggies, and lean meats to avoid dripping animal fat. Wrapping your food in foil also prevents dripping fat and reduces contact between the grill and the meat, reducing HCA development.

To avoid acrylamides, avoid overcooking your starchy ingredients or for cooking them for a very long time. Instead of aiming for a dark brown crust on these products, cook them to a light golden instead.

Limit certain cooking methods like frying or roasting. Processed and deep-fried products, such as French fries or chips, may also contain higher levels of acrylamide – for best results, choose fresh, whole ingredients instead.