While there’s nothing like the smell and flavor of backyard summertime grilling, recent research shows that grilling food poses some health risks. For example, cooking meat at higher temperatures leads to the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known carcinogens.
HCAs, known to harm DNA and promote cancer development, particularly cancer of the stomach and colon, are formed when substances in meat such as amino acids, creatine, and sugars are exposed to high temperatures. PAHs, meanwhile, are formed when the fat and juice from meat drips into the grill fire, creating flames. Rising flames contain PAHs that can then stick to the meat.
There are, however, a few simple ways that you can make grilling healthier for you and your family.
#1: Don’t overcook your food
Keep excess fat from dripping and causing flames by trimming the fat from meats before grilling or choose leaner cuts of meat. Flipping the meat often and grilling it on lower heat to prevent flame formation can also reduce the risk of carcinogen formation. And if there are parts that are overcooked, make sure to trim away the charred areas before eating.
Also, consider substituting meat with fruits, vegetables, and veggie burgers since they pose a much lower risk for carcinogen formation when grilled. An added bonus of cooking more vegetables and fruits on the grill instead of meat is that increased consumption of produce is linked to a lower risk of cancer.
#2: Decrease cooking time on the grill
The longer meat is exposed to smoke and fire, the higher the risk that carcinogens are formed. To reduce cooking times, try cutting your meat into smaller pieces, such as cubed chicken for grilled kebabs. You can even decrease cooking time even further by microwaving your meat briefly before grilling it. Just make sure to grill your food immediately after microwaving to minimize the risk of foodborne illness caused by bacteria that can form in undercooked meats.
The USDA recommends that all meat and poultry be cooked at a temperature of at least 165 degrees to destroy harmful bacteria in grilled meats. We know it’s the last thing on your mind when you’re grilling and entertaining, but it only takes a few seconds and is extremely important to reduce your risk of getting foodborne illness.To ensure that your meat is cooked thoroughly, you can use an instant-read meat thermometer. Simply insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat and all it takes is a mere 15-20 seconds to register the temperature.
#3: Marinate meat prior to grilling
Marinating meat for at least 30 minutes before grilling may allow a barrier to form between your food and harmful carcinogens. In fact, there are several research studies showing that marinating your food prior to grilling can decrease HCA and PAH formation by up to ninety six percent. Just remember to discard any unused marinade immediately to avoid harmful bacteria from raw meat, poultry, or fish.
#4: Clean your grill often
Make sure to clean your grill frequently after use to remove charred residue. One trick to make cleaning easier is to oil the grill rack prior to cooking. This can also decrease the amount of grill residue that forms on the rack. Another great way to keep your grill clean while reducing your exposure to carcinogens is to use aluminum foil. Place the foil on the grill rack and grill the meat directly on the foil to prevent the fat and juice from dripping directly into the grill and producing flames.
The bottom line
By taking a few simple precautions to decrease your risk of exposure to harmful carcinogenic substances, grilling food can be a healthier alternative to traditional cooking methods such as frying or sautéing with added fat.
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Carmen is a registered dietitian who specializes in weight management and nutrition therapy for chronic disease. In addition to nutrition counseling at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Carmen teaches undergraduate health and wellness courses and provides corporate wellness seminars on exercise and nutrition.
Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian, receiving her undergraduate degree in dietetics from James Madison University and her master’s degree in health education and administration from Towson University. She is a certified specialist in adult weight management and teaches cooking classes. Carmen enjoys educating her clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness. She also loves volunteering, including as a Girl Scout troop leader.