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Summer Hazards: Sunburn ... and Barbecue?

This Saturday marks the beginning of barbecue season, and some well-meaning guardians of health are filling the Internet with new ways to make good food taste bad.

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 barbecue.

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 10 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 even in well-done meat.

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 before putting it on the grill.

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 with ketchup, that burger in foil tasted like a wet dog smells.

On the other hand, soaking raw chicken in marinade for 10 minutes before you cook it will keep those outer layers moist, and help keep carcinogens from forming, even if it's cooked directly on the grill.

If marinades aren't for you, there's another option. 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. Scientists say strained blueberries, grapes or plums should be just as protective.

When I told my friend Abe that barbecuing 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 and it can be shifty, too. We might go ahead and dodge this weekend's crispy 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 heaven's sake, let's eat!

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Franklin