Fire up your taste buds—grilling season is here! Nothing says summer quite like the smell of burgers and brats wafting on the breeze. But like many others, you may have health concerns about this form of cooking. So why is grilling an issue? It has to do with the interplay of protein, fat, and fire.
Common grilling conditions can produce two compounds that can form from protein foods that have the potential to increase cancer risk: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are created when protein-rich foods are cooked at high temperatures—such as the 400 plus degrees typical of a grill. PAHs form when fat burns or when charring occurs; the resulting smoke also contains PAHs and these can be deposited on any food on the grill. But while grilling can lead to the formation of these compounds, it doesn’t have to. And it can be a great method for making healthy, fast, and flavorful meals, especially if you include plenty of phyto-rich plant foods on the menu! So if your mouth is watering but your brain is wondering whether you should retire the BBQ, take heart; there are many ways to have your beefcake and eat it too! The following are a few guidelines that will help you grill happily ever after.
Lean towards lean: It’s animal fat that’s the issue, so leaner is definitely better! Fish and chicken have less of the amino acids that can lead to the formation of HCAs than red meat has, but PAHs and HCAs can form on chicken and fish. Minimize fat by removing skin from chicken, choosing fillets or removing the skin from fatty fish, or using leaner cuts of red meat like pork loin or flank steak, and trimming fat. Each of these will reduce harmful flare-ups and charring.
Timing is everything: The shorter the cooking time, the less time there is for PAHs and HCAs to form. Shorten the amount of time the food is on the grill by pre-cooking in the microwave, oven or stove for 5 minutes. Finishing on the grill will give that great grilled taste with none of the downside. Choosing thinner cuts of fish, chicken, or red meat is another option to reduce the cooking time.
Wood is good: Using a method that creates a more indirect heat greatly lowers the possibility that HCAs or PAHs will form. Many people are familiar with using a cedar plank to cook salmon, but wood planks are also great for barbecuing chicken and red meats as well as other types of fish. Soaked wood infuses the food with a wonderful aromatic flavor and keeps it moist. Try branching out (pun intended) with apple, mesquite, or maple wood. A thin slab of slate is another indirect method that retains moisture, as is a piece of foil with holes punched in it.
Clean up your act: Don’t let the ghost of meals past visit charred bits upon your present meal. If using a gas grill, turn the heat up for 5-10 minutes prior to cooking. This burns off the food residue, and a quick scrub with a wire brush completes the cleaning. If using charcoal place the (cooled) rack in a plastic garbage sack with water and liquid dish soap. This will loosen the residue overnight, making cleaning much easier.
Be well seasoned: There is increasing evidence that marinating meat for as little as 30 minutes before grilling can reduce the formation of carcinogens. Using marinades that include phytonutrient dense seasonings such as garlic, red pepper, thyme, sage, and rosemary can be particularly protective. In fact some studies have shown that rosemary contains significant amounts of powerful phenolic compounds like rosmarinic acid, carnosol, and carnosic acid, which help to block HCAs before they can form during heating.
Grill Green: Fill the grill with plenty of produce! Make grilled salads, side dishes, or desserts the real star of the meal. Grilling plant foods produces no HCAs or PAHs, and the phyt might of plant-based foods will help lower cancer risk. The recipes below will help you create a healthy, phytonutrient-packed, palate-pleasing feast—all from your grill! Read More