It’s all a bit confusing, isn’t it?
Trying to keep up with the latest information on what is, or isn’t, the best way to prepare our food is a perplexing subject.
One day we’re told Method X is the best cooking technique for nutritional value and good health, and the next we see a headline telling us it’s linked to cancer.
Take grilling, for example. For years, health and nutrition experts have espoused grilling as the cleanest and leanest cooking process – fat drips away from the food as it cooks, and there’s no extra calories in the form of batters, heavy sauces or excess oils.
Then, over the last decade or so, information started to trickle in about purported health risks of grilling.
Well, good news for all who enjoy outdoor cooking American barbecue style – grilling itself is not actually bad for us.
However, certain processes that occur when grilling may be hazardous to our health, particularly with meats cooked over high heat on charcoal barbecue grills.
So, let’s dig a little deeper and find the bottom line on grilling and health concerns, and then look into how to mitigate those concerns with some easy solutions.
We’ll close with a couple of marinade recipes for the barbecue, as marinating is one of the best ways to keep grilling healthily and to have fun all summer long.
The Charred Meat Problem
Like many others, you’ve probably heard that grilling may lead to an increase in the risk of getting particular cancers.
And that’s something to be concerned about, because let’s face it – it’s pretty easy to let a bit of charring happen on the BBQ. Whether you are using a gas or charcoal grill, this can be a problem.
And there are those who prefer their grilled food with a bit of a char on it, whether this is intentional or not.
So, what is it about charred meat that’s causing so much concern? It turns out that cooking red meat, poultry, pork or fish directly over a flame or at high temperatures causes the muscle proteins to react with the heat – and forms compounds known as HCAs (or heterocyclic amines).
These HCAs are mutagenic, meaning they have been shown to cause destructive DNA changes in cell structures that may lead to certain cancers.
Not only that, but as the high heat releases fat from the meat, it drips down onto the coals or burners and then ignites, producing smoke – which also contain carcinogenic chemicals called PAHs (or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).
As the smoke from the fat rises, it swirls over the food and deposits these chemicals onto that mouth-watering, sizzling half rack of baby back ribs that has your name on it.
Unfortunately, numerous studies since the 80s have shown increasing evidence to link the consumption of grilled red meat to an increased risk for colon, prostate, pancreatic, stomach, and breast cancers – and this increased risk is especially prevalent if the meat is well done.
In some studies, the increased risk was as much as 60% – and that’s a lot.
And then there’s the nature of some of the meats that get grilled. Favorites for an outdoor cookout on the portable charcoal barbecue grill – such as meats like hot dogs, pre-packaged hamburgers and sausages – come with their own cancer concerns in the guise of nitrates and nitrites.
When added to cured meats, these nitrates and nitrites preserve the food to ensure a longer shelf life, but they come with their own host of health concerns. These are further compounded when the preserved meats are cooked over high heat, as the nitrites can transform into nitrosamines – another carcinogen.
So, it seems that we have fair reason to reconsider our grilling practices. But, isn’t there a way to reduce these risks and still enjoy our favorite summertime cooking style?
As it turns out, there is.
You can relax BBQ aficionados, because the health researchers say we don’t have to give up the grill permanently.
It’s still a clean and lean way to cook if you follow a few common sense grilling safety tips, and moderate your temperatures. Let’s explore these safety tips in detail.
There are several ways to reduce the potential health risks of grilling so you can continue to enjoy barbecue season.
1. Go Lean
Always start with a lean cut of meat. Trim off any excess visible fat, and remove skin from poultry before grilling. This keeps grilling a lean and healthy choice for clean cooking, and also limits fat drip flare-ups that can char the meat.
Marinating meats before grilling is one of the best ways to reduce the formation of HCAs, by as much as 96% according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
And while research isn’t exactly clear about why a marinade is so effective, whether it forms a protective barrier or the protection is in the combination of ingredients, the results speak for themselves.
Not only will a marinade perform this mighty health-promoting task, it will also imbue meats with delicious flavor, add moisture, and tenderize tougher cuts.
Marinades require four things to be effective. They are:
- An acid for enzyme action to tenderize meat – found in lemon and lime juice, apple juice, wine, yogurt, buttermilk and vinegars.
- Pungent herbs and spices for flavor.
- A drop of oil to add moisture.
- Enough time to let the process work.
Many ingredients suitable for marinades are loaded with flavonoids, which may help to reduce the formation of carcinogens.
Try liquids such as olive oil, canola oil, lemon and lime juice, low-sodium soy sauce, honey, beer, wine, apple juice, buttermilk, Worcestershire sauce and yogurt.
Add flavoring to meat marinades with herbs, spices and aromatics such as thyme, oregano, mint, sage, savory, garlic, onion, ginger and rosemary, which may also contribute to a reduction in the formation of HCAs.
For marinating, keep these tips in mind:
- Whether you make your own or purchase a bottled marinade, look for recipes or products that contain only small amounts of healthy oils, such as olive or canola.
- Refrigerate any foods that will be marinated for more than 30 minutes, to prevent the formation of bacteria.
- Set aside a small amount of the marinade for basting while grilling – don’t use the same liquid the meat was marinating in, as you don’t want the raw meat juices to be added to your cooked food.
- Most commercial meats like beef, pork and poultry should marinate for at least 1-2 hours, while fish and veggies require only 30-60 minutes.
- Add a dry rub. A dry spice mix made with ingredients like turmeric, garlic and rosemary has been shown to cut down the production of HCA by as much as 70%.
Foodal recommends Barry Fast’s The Smart Guide to Healthy Grilling
Tangy Meat Marinade
This marinade is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols found in wine (or beer), herbs and garlic. Allow ½ cup of marinade for each pound of meat.
Saucy Citrus and Herb Marinade for Poultry and Fish
This citrus and herb marinade works equally well on fish or chicken for the grill. Ensure that all pieces are covered completely to soak up the goodness.
3. Grill More Veggies and Fruit
Eating more antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables is a great habit to get into, and they grill up very well. But the best news is, HCAs and PAHs don’t form on grilled fruits and vegetables – so, grill them on their own or with meat, fish or poultry to enjoy their many health benefits!
Some veggies and fruits that are great for the grill are:
Grilled veggie dishes are healthy and savory, such as this grilled veggie salad recipe with raw spinach and parsley dressing.
And don’t forget veggie burgers are an option, too! Skip the frozen stuff, and try making your own at home. You’ll love this recipe for Sweet Potato Coconut Patties if you’re looking for something a little different.
4. Reduce Heat with Smaller Portions
As cooking meat at high temperatures is one of the triggers for the formation of the compounds we don’t want, we can further reduce the risks by cooking on low.
Grill meat at lower temperatures (325°F and under), and cook smaller portions to reduce time on the grill – perfect advice for those using portable gas BBQ grills that may not have a high BTU output.
Smaller portions will cook faster and spend less time on the grill under unfavorable conditions.
5. Become a Kebab King
Another easy way to cut down on the time your food spends on the grill is to thread bite-sized chunks of meat, poultry, fish and seafood on a skewer and grill up some kebabs.
Most folks like to alternate with pieces of bell peppers, onion, zucchini, cherry or plum tomatoes, and mushrooms for a tasty treat.
However, there is a better way:
Cook the meat separately from the vegetables (and fruit). This allows both food types to cook under the ideal heat and time. Try a little direct heat followed by a lower temperature for the meat, and significantly lower temperatures for the vegetables.
Use (pre-soaked) bamboo or metal skewers, or strip rosemary sprigs of their needles and use the stems for an extra flavor boost.
6. Flip, Don’t Fork
Anther technique that may seem a bit counterintuitive to our usual grilling practices is to flip food on the grill often. According to information compiled by the National Cancer Institute (2), this will help prevent the formation of HCAs.
Turn the meat with a spatula rather than a fork, as piercing the meat will release juices that may drip and smoke, contributing to FCA production.
7. Eat More Chicken and Fish
The American Heart Association urges us to eat more fish for their healthy and disease preventing omega-3 fatty acids, and poultry for its leaner protein.
For something a bit different, make burgers out of ground chicken, turkey or salmon with tangy herbs and aromatics. You’ll love this healthful alternative to red meat burgers.
8. Eliminate the Nitrates
When grilling hot dogs, sausages or pre-packaged hamburgers, look for natural foods free of additional nitrates and preservatives. They might make meat last longer on the grocery store shelf, but they don’t do our physical health any good.
9. Precook Meat
Another trick is to precook meat in the microwave, then finish it on the grill (1). Doing so separates the juice from the meat, and this may remove any water-soluble HCA precursors from forming. Unfortunately, this also removes most of the flavor from the meat as well…
10. Keep it Clean
Regularly clean and remove any bits of charred food from the grate and firebox of your grill to prevent the formation of FCAs through secondary smoke.
And while we’re on the subject of grilling safety, let’s look at another issue to ensure our continued barbecuing pleasure. Overcooking isn’t the only part of outdoor grilling that can be hazardous to health – food poisoning is another.
Undercooked meat, improperly prepared meat, and cross-contamination can all lead to a nasty case of food poisoning, and it happens every summer; millions of people are diagnosed with mild to severe cases of food poisoning.
Most often, the culprit is from eating undercooked meat and poultry, or from cross-contamination of foods. Bacteria heavy hitters such as E. coli and salmonella are regular visitors to chicken, beef and meat products.
If the meat isn’t cooked to a certain internal temperature, the bacteria remain vital and can end up your intestinal tract – with symptoms like vomiting, excessive sweating, stomach cramps and diarrhea as a result.
To keep your cookout fun and healthy, follow these tips for safe food handling:
- Chill out. Store all meat and poultry in the fridge until it’s ready to go on the grill. And refrigerate any leftovers within 30 minutes to prevent bacteria from forming on the surface.
- Separate food groups. In order to avoid bacterial cross-contamination, keep raw meats, burgers, chicken and fish away from salads, vegetables, fruits or any other foods that will be consumed without cooking.
- After cutting or handling raw meat, wash all utensils, dishes and the cutting board with hot, soapy water. And always use a clean plate for serving, not the one the raw meat was on.
- Clean up. Before handling any food items, wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
- Keep food covered. Any food that’s prepped and waiting for the grill should be covered to keep bugs, and the germs on their little bug feet, off of your food – you don’t know where they’ve been, and they probably didn’t wash before landing on your meal.
Additionally, you want to cook you meat thoroughly.
The outside appearance of a burger is not a good indicator of whether or not it’s done. Use a food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat until it reaches the optimal temperature, as outlined by the Food Safety and Inspection Service:
- Whole chicken or turkey: 165°F
- Chicken or turkey breasts (boneless): 165°F
- Ground chicken or turkey: 165°F
- Hamburgers, ground beef: 160°F
- Beef roasts or steaks: Medium rare 145°F; Medium 160°F; Well-done 170°F
- Pork: 160°F
- Fish: 145°F
You can also check out Foodal’s Guide to Roasting Times for Various Types of Meat for additional tips.
These grilling tips and advice from the health experts should become an important part of our toolkit of barbecuing essentials – to keep grilling safe and delicious all summer long.
Now you’re ready to try these recipes for tasty and healthy marinades yourself, to keep the grill fires burning!
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.