Nothing says innocent summer fun like throwing some meat on the grill and eating al fresco with friends and family. The only thing is — grilling isn’t actually so innocent after all. Yep, like that mosquito that keeps landing on your fruit salad, we’re here to put a damper on your next summer bbq with some news about the serious health risks of grilling. But unlike that annoying mosquito, we’re going to make it better in the end, with smart tips to help you stay safe while still enjoying all the fun and deliciousness of grilling season.
First, let’s look at the risks of grilling. The basic gist is this: when meat is cooked at high temperatures, it causes chemical reactions that release toxins into the air, onto the food, and into our bodies. The three major chemical compounds produced during grilling are:
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): These are formed when fat drips down onto the hot coals or grill element below. From there, they rise up through smoke and flame-ups and deposit themselves back on the food.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs): When cooked over high heat for long enough, compounds inside meat, chicken, and fish form HCAs, which have been linked to breast, colon, and prostate cancer in lab studies of rats.
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs): AGEs are formed from a chemical reaction that occurs between fat and protein when meat is cooked over high heat. They’ve been shown to contribute to inflammation, which is linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The effects of these carcinogens is real: one study showed that postmenopausal women who ate a lot of grilled meats had a 47% greater risk of breast cancer than those who ate the least meat.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. There’s also the issue of aluminum, which a lot of people use to line their grills or cook certain items like fish or vegetables. In the normal environment, aluminum is everywhere, and the body can naturally get rid of small amounts efficiently; but when acidic foods, salts, and spices are used on heated foil, aluminum leaches to a level above the World Health Organization’s acceptable daily limit.
On top of that, new research shows that grilling over high heat can cause an increase in high blood pressure. As Gang Liu, the study’s lead author and research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said “our findings imply that avoiding the use of open-flame and/or high-temperature cooking methods may help reduce hypertension risk among individuals who consume red meat, chicken, or fish regularly.”
But don’t despair — all of this info doesn’t mean that you need to resign yourself to eating a sad salad at your next bbq. It just means you need to implement a few smart grilling practices to make your food healthier, without sacrificing any of the taste or fun.
Here are 6 ways to grill more safely this summer:
Choose fruits and veggies. The easiest way to avoid the carcinogenic effects of grilled meat is by not eating meat. And with the abundance of summer produce, there are tons of delicious fruits and vegetables to throw on the grill: try pineapple, peaches, asparagus, onion, even grilled saladgreens. Bonus: grill broccoli, since cruciferous vegetables can change the way the body metabolizes the chemicals caused by grilling.
Marinate, marinate, marinate. The best way to impart flavor to your meat might also be the most effective way to make it safer. One study tested three different marinades, and found that all caused a significant reduction in the total HCA content of the meat (the Caribbean marinade had an 88% decrease, the herb marinade a 72% decrease, and the Southwest marinade a 57% decrease). A tip sheet from Purdue University suggests using marinades that contain antioxidants (vinegar, citrus, herbs, spices, and olive oils) that will help inhibit the formation of carcinogens on grilled meat.
Go rare(er). The less time meat is exposed to high heat, the less time it’ll have to develop any harmful chemicals. If you do get a more well-done piece of meat, cut off any charred pieces.
Trim the fat. Because fat drippings are a major source of PAHs, reducing the amount of fat on a cut of meat will make a big difference. Skinning your chicken, trimming the fat from your steak, and choosing leaner cuts of meat help minimize your risk.
Keep it clean. Clean your grill before each use to make sure you’re not grilling over old fat drippings or picking up leftover pieces of char. (And be sure to use a non-wire brush to clean up so you don’t end up with leftover metal bristles in the grill!).
Ditch the foil. Wherever you would normally use aluminum foil in your grilling, opt instead for a cast-iron skillet — when cooking acidic foods, you may even get a bonus mineral boost of iron.