Grilling is a common way that people cook food in the summer months. Grilling is a dry heat cooking method where food is cooked directly over, or indirectly near the heat source. But did you know that there are some health risks of grilling? When cooking over high heat, especially over an open flame, there are potential carcinogens that can form. A carcinogen is defined as a substance that is capable of causing cancer. This doesn’t mean that you will get cancer from consuming these carcinogens on occasion, but humans are exposed to various carcinogens on a daily basis, so reducing your exposure when you can is always the best thing to do for your health. Today we will discuss the risks of grilled food and give you some tips for healthy grilling this summer.
What Are the Risks of Grilled Food?
The two main carcinogens that can form on food from grilling are heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are found in the outer layer of grilled meat. When you see charred grill marks on the outside of a piece of meat, that is a sign that HCAs have formed during the grilling process. HCAs are formed when sugars and amino acids (the building blocks of protein) react to high temperatures. PAHs are formed when the fat and juices from meat that is grilled directly over a heat source drips into the flames. The smoke then adheres to the meat’s surface and coats it with PAHs. PAH formation is influenced by many factors, including the temperature and duration of cooking, the distance from the heat source, the type of fuel used in heating, and the fat content of the food.
Tips For Healthy Grilling
If you would like to avoid your exposure to HCAs and PAHs when grilling, here are some tips that will help prevent the formation of these carcinogenic compounds.
1. Use leaner cuts of meat to grill- Leaner meat options include chicken breast and white fish, opposed to fattier cuts of meat such as chicken thighs or fatty steaks. Since PAHs form when the fat and juices from meat drip into the flames, grilling a piece of meat that has very little fat content will help prevent PAHs from forming. If you are going to be grilling fattier cuts of meat, you can trim some of the fat off before grilling.
2. Use a gas grill instead of charcoal- Charcoal grills create more smoke, which leads to the formation of PAHs. The flames from charcoal grills are also much hotter, which increases the formation of HCAs. It is also easier to control the temperature and height of the flames with gas grills. Avoid direct exposure of meat to an open flame when possible. When grilling, lower temperatures are safer. It’s also a good idea to clean your grill often by removing any previous char buildup each time you cook on your grill.
3. Marinate meat before cooking- Marinating your meat before throwing it on the grill can be very helpful in reducing the formation of HCAs. You should also opt for acidic based marinades opposed to sugar based marinades. Some examples of acidic based marinades include vinegar, lemon or lime juice, wine, and yogurt. Due to their antioxidant levels, using herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, and basil when marinating, or as a dry rub, will also help to reduce HCA formation.
4. Flip your meat often- If you flip your meat often when grilling, the surface of the meat is continuously moving around. This will prevent it from getting charred or burned, which lowers the formation of carcinogenic compounds from forming on your meat.
5. Grill a lot of veggies to have with your meal- Vegetables don’t have the same risk of PAH and HCA formation as meat. This is because produce doesn’t have the same muscle and protein content as meat. So whether you grill a bunch of veggies as a side, or add them to kabob skewers, filling up with veggies is a great way to help lower your PAH and HCA consumption when grilling a meal.
6. Lower the amount of time food is on the grill- The longer meat is exposed to a high heat source, the more HCAs are formed. Avoid overcooking meat by taking it off the grill as soon as it has reached a safe internal temperature. You can also lower the amount of time food is on the grill by partially pre-cooking your meat with another cooking method, such as baking, before putting it on the grill. Cutting meat into smaller pieces, such as with kabobs, will require less time for it to fully cook, so this is always a great option!
You don’t need to give up eating grilled food entirely because of the risk of HCA and PAH formation, but reducing your exposure to these carcinogenic compounds where you can will be helpful. If you follow these tips when grilling, you will drastically reduce the formation of these harmful compounds.