Barbecuing and summer go hand-in-hand. TV’s Food Network host Katie Lee says, “The Grill is the summer equivalent of a fireplace; everyone gravitates to it.” The tradition of summertime barbecues go all the way back to the 1800s! So, it’s no surprise that many of us equate summertime with grilling and entertaining. However, with tradition comes learning, and various studies have shown there to be evidence that grilling isn’t so great for your health and could even cause cancer. But don’t cancel the barbecue just yet. Turns out a lot of it depends on WHAT and HOW it’s barbecued - and we have some tips and tricks to help.
The Cause for Concern
Let’s break down what exactly is the cause for concern when it comes to grilling. We all know those black char marks that result from throwing something on the grill. Well, unfortunately, that black char is heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which develop when high temperatures meet muscle meat. If that isn’t enough to be concerned about, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when organic matter gets burned – so when that fat drips off the steak into the hot grill, the carbons in the fat combust, producing hydrocarbons that then get carried up into the smoke and coat the meat. This creates the potential cancer-causing chemicals.
Before you lock up your grill and banish it to the great beyond, health professionals say that like many things in life, quantity matters. That means the dose of carcinogens is a big factor (for example, the longer meat cooks, the more carcinogens are able to coat it). And, keep in mind that a diet high in red and processed meat is also linked to causing cancer - no matter how it is cooked. The key takeaway here is everything in moderation. (1)
It's Great to "Meat" You
Despite some of the scary C-words above, there is good news when it comes to grilling! Cranking up that grill can have a lot of health benefits and can be a great cooking method, not to mention a good time. Many cooking methods involve cooking the meat in its own fat. That fat is often then reabsorbed into the meat (yuck). With grilling, however, that fat is able to melt and drip off, without losing moisture or juice in the meat. Despite the research above, there isn’t much evidence that shows grilling makes food more dangerous than pesticides, artificial colorings, added sugars, etc. (2) By making a few small changes to your grilling style you can make grilling an excellent way to cook up your favorites.
Cut down your risk and enjoy a healthier summer barbecue with these tips, tricks, and techniques!
10 Tips, Tricks, and Techniques to Healthy Grilling
1. Clean, Clean, Clean
First things first – clean the grill! Don’t let too much char build up on the grill, specifically, don’t let that char transfer onto the food. Leftover char can cause smoke and flames. Wire brushes and a wet towel should be able to keep that grill spick and span.
2. Go Lean
Fat hitting the flame is how those PAHs are created. To prevent this, steer clear of processed meats, like hot dogs, and fatty meats, like hamburger meat. Instead, grab leaner meats like chicken, fish, or lean cuts of grass-fed steak. Fish is a particularly great choice because it doesn’t have as long of a cooking time as beef and chicken, meaning less time for HCAs to accumulate.
3. Gettin' Veggie With It
BBQ-ing used to translate to MEAT, but move over meat-lovers because grilling has evolved. BBQ’d caesar salad? BBQ’d bananas? Yep, both are a thing (and they are delicious). And, if we’re talking lean, there’s nothing leaner than some fruits and veggies. Even better news is that HCAs aren’t formed when cooking fruits and veggies because the char that forms isn’t carcinogenic since there isn’t any muscle meeting high heat!
4. Put a Stick in It
Make kabobs by alternating between meat and vegetables (or fruit like pineapple). Not only is the addition of vegetables great, the surface area of the meat is decreased, meaning less meat exposed directly to the hot grill.
5. Sauce It Up
Marinate meat (including chicken and fish) for at least 30 minutes. There are varying opinions as to why marinating seems to help. One theory is that the marinade helps to break down the muscle, meaning a reduction in the number of HCA’s that form. Another is that the marinade provides some kind of barrier between the meat and the heat. Just make sure to read the label or make your own because a lot of marinades are high in sugar.
6. That's a Wrap
Wrapping your fruits and veggies with foil can protect them from any fat that may fall onto the grills from any accompanying meat. To avoid any fat from falling down at all, wrap your meat in foil as well!
7. One, Two, Flip
Flipping frequently still results in the meat reaching the desired temperature, without getting the char marks and keeping your meat as healthy as possible. Also, cook over a low flame and indirect heat.
8. Gas Is Best
The temperature can be much better controlled with a gas grill compared to charcoal. In order to cook over a low flame and indirect heat as mentioned above, light the outer burners only and cook in the middle of the grill.
9. See Ya Char
Those crispy, burnt black pieces on the edges have gotta go. Those parts contain the highest concentration of carcinogenic compounds. Also, trim the fat off of the meat prior to grilling.
10. Give It A Pre-Cook
Partially cooking or pre-cooking meat before grilling means less time on the grill, meaning less time for carcinogens to form. (3)
So, to grill or not to grill? That is the question. Well, based on the research, it seems it all depends on how you grill. There are many ways to enjoy your grill or barbecue in a healthy and safe way this summer, so fire it up!
1. Egan, S. (2019, June 27). 10 ways to lower the cancer risk of grilling. The New York Times. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/27/well/eat/10-ways-to-lower-the-cancer-risk-of-grilling.html
2. UHBlog. (2021, July 6). Cooking out? how to avoid the potential health hazards of grilling. University Hospitals. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.uhhospitals.org/Healthy-at-UH/articles/2021/07/cooking-out-how-to-avoid-the-potential-health-hazards-of-grilling
3. Can grilling food really cause cancer? Cedars. (n.d.). Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/grilling-cancer-risk.html