Everyone loves to fire up the grill for a July 4th cookout. How you grill and what you cook on the grill can be tasty, healthy and can even reduce your risk of developing some cancers. You may have heard that certain foods cooked on the grill at high temperatures aren’t good for you but you may ignore the risk because you love to grill. Well, no need to stop grilling, “just make some smart grill moves in what you cook and how you cook,” says Alice Bender, a registered dietitian and head of nutrition programs at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
First, let’s look at what is at the root of the health concern. The culprits include two chemicals produced when grilling meat. The first are chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that are formed when meat is cooked at very high temperatures causing some the building blocks of protein (amino acids) to break down into HCAs. The other dangerous compound produced during grilling occurs when the fat from the meat hits the hot coals or gas grill lava rocks and causes flare-ups and smoke. The smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Both of these compounds have the potential to alter DNA leading to increase cancer risk. The studies showing the changes are done in animals, and while the human research is only an association, not a cause, but why not make smart moves with grilling to reduce your risk?
What should you grill? The biggest culprit in forming HCAs comes from muscle meat, especially fatty cuts: steaks, burgers, chicken pieces with the skin, and ribs. So, consider leaner cuts of meat (flank steak, skinless chicken or turkey filets, and pork tenderloin) and try some new alternatives, like organic chicken sausages instead of the fatty brats. Other healthy grilling choices include fish, burgers made from soy or ground turkey or chicken breast, and kebabs made with smaller pieces of meat and plenty of vegetables.
The next strategy to reduce your risk is to change your grilling techniques. All of the following will reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Pre-cook meat in the oven and finish it on the grill; that translates to less grilling time but still gives the meat the grilled flavor
- Don’t eat the charred or blackened parts of grilled meat; cut those off and toss
- Marinate meat before grilling; marinades seem to provide a barrier between the flames and the meat
- Use lean cuts of meat and trim all fat
- Keep the drips to a minimum by using tongs instead of a fork that pierces the meat and leads to more grill flare ups
- Flip foods more often
- Grill at lower heat to avoid flare-ups which lead to charring and smoke formation
Now for some good news; grilling vegetables doesn’t increase your risk of cancer; vegetables don’t contain a lot of protein and it is the protein in meat that interacts with the high heat and smoke to produce HCAs and PAHs. So, lighten up on the meat and load up the grill with veggies. Thick slices of veggies work well on the grill or toss smaller cuts of veggies in a grill basket and lightly baste with olive oil and fresh or dried herbs. Try this Summer Grilled Balsamic Veggie recipe from AICR (and check out all of their healthy recipes) at http://www.aicr.org/health-e-recipes/2016/summer-grilled-balsamic-veggies.html
And, don’t forget that grilled fruit makes for a sweet ending to a meal. Grill slices of apple, pineapple, pears, or peaches and top with vanilla Greek yogurt and sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg.
For more information, take the AICR quiz on grilling and cancer risk.