Cooking and eating in the great outdoors seems like such a healthy thing to do.
Even if you’re using a fancy grill in your own backyard, there’s still something a little bit rugged, a little “back to nature” about barbecuing your family’s meal under the open sky.
And, of course, it’s fun.
All of which makes it disappointing to hear that grilling can actually be bad for you. The potential hazards can come from almost every angle—from the food you grill to how you prepare it and even how long it’s cooked.
But before you toss your tongs in the trash and resign yourself to never again eating salmon barbecued over mesquite coals, read on. You may have to tinker with your technique, but you can continue to enjoy grilled foods while reducing the risks to your health.
Concerns about cancer
Research has linked eating grilled meats—including poultry and fish—to an increased risk for cancer.
Cooking meat on a grill can produce two different cancer-causing compounds:
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs form in meats that are cooked at especially high temperatures and in meats cooked long enough to char. HCAs can be formed in broiled and pan-fried meat as well as in grilled meat, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Studies done in animals suggest that HCAs may increase the risk for cancers of the breast, colon, stomach and prostate, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
And research done in humans has shown a link between HCAs from grilled foods and an increased risk for pancreatic cancer, according to the ACS. In fact, one study found that regularly eating charred, well-done meat can increase a person’s risk for pancreatic cancer by 60 percent.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds are created when the fat and juices from meat drip onto an open fire or onto hot coals, causing flames. PAHs form in the resulting smoke, which then envelops whatever food is being cooked on the grill and deposits PAHs onto it.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), PAHs have shown the ability to damage DNA in ways that make cancer more likely.
Lowering your risk
Fortunately, your risk of cancer varies with what you cook—and how you cook it.
Grilling fruits and vegetables, for example, can help you avoid both PAHs and HCAs. Neither one of these compounds is formed when vegetables or fruits are grilled. In addition, filling up on produce may mean that you eat less meat.
Still, you don’t have to take grilled meats entirely off the menu. Instead, try lowering your exposure to PAHs and HCAs with the following tips:
Marinate your meats. “Marinating your meat can lower the amount of HCAs produced,” says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, RD, former spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The moisture helps the meat cook more slowly and reduces charring.”
Using a mixture of vinegar or lemon juice along with herbs and spices seems to be the key. You should leave the meat in the marinade for at least 30 minutes.
Scientists are still investigating precisely how these marinades help lower HCAs, but it’s possible that compounds in the marinade ingredients are responsible.
Choose more fish and poultry, and less red and processed meats. No matter how you cook it, eating a lot of red meat can increase your risk for colorectal cancer, according to AICR. And even small amounts of processed meats like hot dogs and sausages can raise your risk.
Avoid charring. Grill at lower temperatures by turning the gas down or cooking your meat in the center of the grill after you move coals off to the side. Remove charred or burnt sections from meat before eating. Those bites have the highest concentration of HCAs, according to the AICR.
Reduce grill time. Grill meat in smaller portions that cook more quickly, such as skewered on kabobs. Flipping meat frequently also speeds up cooking and helps prevent HCAs from forming.
You can also cook meats first in the oven or microwave, and then finish on the grill for just a few minutes.
Eliminate drips. Use tongs or a spatula instead of piercing meat with a fork. Or try covering the grill surface with punctured aluminum foil so that fat can drip off but less smoke comes back onto the meat.
You can also help eliminate drips by choosing lean cuts of meat and trimming extra fat before cooking.
Other grilling pitfalls
When you take food preparation out of the convenient confines of the kitchen, it’s easy to let food safety slide.
Take hand washing, for example.
“People often forget to wash their hands frequently when they barbecue,” Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says.
Follow these tips to avoid other food safety pitfalls common to grilling:
- “Never reuse marinade that’s been in contact with raw meat—not even if you boil it,” Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says.
- Don’t baste with marinade that has touched raw meat. Set aside a small amount before marinating to use just for basting.
- Marinate all meats in the refrigerator, never on the counter or near the grill.
- Grill meat you have precooked immediately to avoid bacteria that can cause illness.
- Always use separate cutting boards, dishes and utensils for raw meat.
- Go ahead and cook vegetables on the same grill surface as the meat—but only if the meat was thoroughly cooked, Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says.
- Judge meat’s doneness using a food thermometer. This is the only way to make sure it’s fully cooked. You can find out proper cooking temperatures for commonly grilled meats with this interactive tool.
- Don’t leave any perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours—one hour if the outdoor temperature is 90 degrees or higher.
Also, scrub your grill with hot, soapy water before each use, and follow all the safety precautions and rules of operation in the owner’s manual. Improper use of a grill could cause a fire or explosion.
Choose healthy foods
Keep in mind that no matter how carefully you cook your food, what you’re eating is still more important than how you cook it, according to the ACS.
The ACS offers the following dietary tips to help you reduce your risk of developing cancer:
- Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods.
- Make physical activity a daily priority.
- Avoid processed meat and red meat.
- Get to—and stay at—a healthy body weight.