Summer Grilling Tips to Reduce Carcinogens

Is Grilled Food Bad For You?
What could be more natural, more primal than eating something cooked over a fire?

So how could grilled foods be unhealthy?

High temperature cooking, especially grilling, can create some pretty toxic compounds including heterocyclic amines (HCAs), advanced glycosylation end products (AGEs), and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are all considered carcinogenic, and instigators of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other inflammatory issues. HCAs and AGEs are formed when proteins and sugars react at high temperatures. The highest levels of these compounds are found in animal proteins, but these, or related, compounds can be found on many foods cooked at high temperatures, especially those that are fried, browned or blackened. PAHs are formed differently, as they are a product of carbon combustion. As fats and juices drip into grill fires, the flames rise up, bring with them PAHs that adhere to whatever is cooking.So am I suggesting that you should never grill again?
Nope, I’m suggesting moderation, and that you follow these simple harm reduction practices:

  • Marinate meat in an acidic solution such as wine, vinegar or lemon before cooking, which can reduce the formation of AGEs and HCAs.
  • Rub (or marinate) foods with rich spices, especially rosemary, which can substantially reduce the formation of HCAs. Other strongly antioxidant spices to add are sage, thyme, caraway, chili, paprika, turmeric and coriander.
  • Before grilling, pre-cook meats by parboiling or cooking in a low temperature oven, to shorten the exposure of your foods to high temperatures.
  • Use a chimney starter instead of chemical based fire starters, and natural charcoal. The added chemicals of fire starters and briquettes add insult to injury, and the natural charcoal imparts better flavor.
  • Go for less charring. The more burnt the food, the higher levels of PAHs. Scrape off any excessively charred portions of your food before consuming.
  • Keep your grill in a well-ventilated area, away from your house. Avoid hanging out by the grill too long, as PAHs are not good for your lungs.
  • There’s some wisdom to bringing coleslaw and sauerkraut to a summer BBQ! Compounds found in cabbage, broccoli and other brassicas can help protect from DNA damaging compounds.
  • Summer berries are also rich in antioxidant compounds that are cancer and vascular protective. If you’ve got a choice, instead of reaching for a flour based dessert (like cookies or cake), which are much higher in carbohydrates, go for the blackberry crisp.

Depending on one’s level of health, there are often ways to work-around some of the potentially negative effects of our less healthy habits. I strongly believe that enjoying what you love is good for your health, and so is balance!