It won’t kill you to grill.
Grilling the safest, most delicious food (without the health risks).

By Brian St. Pierre

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Worried about grilling and cancer? Don’t let the fearmongers fool you. Check out these ingenious ways to grill for your health.

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The smell of the grill. The hiss of the flame. The fun of a backyard barbeque.

Grilling is one of the great joys of summer.

At the same time, grilling meat does have its risks. Here’s how to use your grill to make nutritious, delicious food with minimal health hazards.

Fire up that grill, and let’s go.

In defense of the grill

It’s a universal truth: Grilling makes food taste gooood.

It doesn’t matter what you put on there. It smells and tastes amazing.

Burgers? Steak? Seafood? Tofu? Veggies? Lettuce?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and, surprisingly, yes — the grill even makes salad taste better. (Try grilled radicchio sometime.)

But the grill doesn’t just make food tasty. It offers some legitimate health benefits, too.

For instance, you don’t need much oil for grilling (unlike, say, sautéeing in a pan). And fat drips off during cooking.

(That’s not to say dietary fat is bad. In fact, the right balance of dietary fat is important for health. It’s just that excess fat — just like excess carbohydrate or protein — is something to be careful about.)

Plus, if you’re grilling, it probably means you’re cooking for yourself.

The company of family and friends, the great outdoors, the easy, minimal cleanup — all these perks mean you’ll be less tempted to head to a restaurant or call up some takeout.

In the big picture, calorie-packed dishes, overeating, social isolation, and lack of outdoor exposure do more to damage our health than the occasional intake of HCAs or PAHs (we’ll get to these in a moment).

So keep things in perspective. Give your grill (and family, and friends, and sunny backyard) some love.

[whispering] I love you, Big Green Egg.

But doesn’t grilling cause cancer?

Okay, now that we’ve gone and given our grill a big hug (was that just me?), let’s look at why grilling has gotten so much flack recently.

Grilling meat does produce a couple of chemicals that may increase risk of cancer. Scary sounding, I know. But let’s talk a little more about that…

Heterocyclic amines

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when meat is overcooked or charbroiled: Creatine, amino acids, and sugars in meat react together with heat.

(Interestingly, this is the same process as the Maillard reaction — the chemical reaction that browns meat and makes it so tasty.)

HCAs can damage and change DNA. Thus, the Department of Health and Human Services places HCAs in the “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” category. Not good.

Animal research consistently shows that HCAs contribute to cancer development — at least in very large doses. (That “very large dose” part is important.) Likewise, human research shows that eating a lot of HCAs is associated with a higher risk of cancer.

More than 17 different HCAs have been identified as potentially risky for humans.

Four factors influence HCA formation:

  1. Type of food
  2. How it’s cooked
  3. Temperature
  4. How long it’s cooked

Temperature is the most important of these four.

While HCAs begin to form at 212 F (100 C), the truly nasty types start to be made in large quantities at about 572 F (300 C). Most people grill their food in the 375-500 F range, though some will go up to 650 F to sear a steak, for example.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when meat is charred or blackened, or when fat from the meat drips onto the hot surface of the grill. This forms PAHs in the smoke, which then permeates the meat.

PAHs include over 100 different compounds formed by the incomplete burning of organic matter (e.g., oil, gas, coal, food, etc.) at temperatures in excess of 392 degrees F (200 C).

The Environmental Protection Agency has classified seven PAHs as probable human carcinogens.

PAH creation is influenced by:

  • Temperature of cooking
  • How long food is cooked
  • Type of fuel used in heating
  • Distance from heat source
  • Fat content of the food

Essentially, the hotter and longer a meat is cooked, the more HCAs and PAHs.

Direct heat methods like frying and grilling produce more than indirect-heat methods like stewing, steaming or poaching.

Interestingly, HCAs and PAHs can only damage DNA after they have been metabolized by certain enzymes, a process known as bioactivation. We’ll talk more about this later.

Also, different people have different levels of enzyme activity, which likely affects how their bodies process HCAs and PAHs — and thus, their potential disease risk.

How to make grilling healthier

Regardless of your own personal response to HCAs and PAHs, there are some universal ways to reduce their formation and protect yourself from damage. These just so happen to be easy, and tasty too.

Use herbs and spices

Herbs and spices make food taste good. They also help lower HCA and PAH content.

The volatile oils and other compounds that give herbs and spices their flavor punch (and their superpowers, such as antioxidant activity) can help prevent the formation of these harmful chemicals.

For example…

Rosemary is the most researched herb. It can lower HCA formation by up to 90 percent in some cases. As a bonus, rosemary also has an incredible capacity for destroying the most noxious form of E. coli, O157:H7. It decreases cancer and food poisoning risk in one shot!

Other herbs from the mint family (of which rosemary is a part), all decrease HCA formation. This includes basil, thyme, sage and oregano.

Turmeric is another helpful spice. A classic spice used in South and East Asian dishes (it’s what makes curry yellow), turmeric can decrease HCA formation by up to 40 percent.

Humble onion powder has also been shown to reduce one of the major types of HCAs (PhlP) by up to 94 percent.

Fresh garlic, when used in marinades, can also decrease HCA formation by up to 70 percent.

Garlic close up

Marinate your meat

Acid-based marinades (vinegar, lemon or lime juice, wine, yogurt, etc.), can dramatically reduce HCA formation.

In one study, a teriyaki marinade was able to lower HCA levels by 44-67 percent, whereas a honey BBQ sauce marinade increased HCA formation 1.9-2.9 times! This was likely due to the high sugar content and low phenolic and antioxidant content of the BBQ sauce.

(Bonus tip: an acid-based marinade likely contains less sugar and fewer calories than the BBQ sauce. But if you are going to use BBQ sauce, put it on at the end of cooking. That way it’s less likely to burn and char.)

Beer marinades work, too — particularly ones made with dark beer.

In one experiment, marinating pork in dark beer before grilling decreased PAH levels by 53 percent, whereas a light Pilsner marinade only reduced PAH by 13 percent.

Other research has found that marinades can lower HCA levels by as much as 99 percent. Even coating your meat in a little olive oil can keep HCA in check by helping to prevent the meat from charring (but don’t go crazy, as fat dripping on the flame can increase PAH levels).

Don’t overcook

HCAs and PAHs depend on temperature plus time.

The hotter the temperature and the longer the cooking time, the more HCAs and PAHs get produced.

So overcooking not only turns your steak into shoe leather, it produces more HCAs and PAHs. Well-done meat contains three and a half times as many HCAs as medium-rare meat.

Blackened and charred meat have the highest levels of HCAs and PAHs. So, either prevent them from developing in the first place, or cut blackened bits off when they happen.

Exposure to high heat in general can be a problem. While it might seem better to use lower-temperature, longer-cooking barbecuing methods, this approach actually leads to very high levels of PAHs and HCAs because meat is cooking so long. (Remember it’s temperature and time, not just one or the other.)

Cook until meat reaches appropriate internal temperatures for food safety, but no longer.

Choose meat wisely

Highly-processed meats have a much stronger link to cancer than less-processed meats.

Foods with added nitrates like hot dogs, bacon, sausage, ham, and deli meats are thought to be much more problematic than whole-food meats like beef, chicken, pork and fish. This remains true even when factoring in the HCAs and PAHs created by grilling whole-food meats.

So start with high-quality meat.

  • Most of the time, use whole, less-processed cuts of meat such as steaks, chicken thighs, ribs, etc. Fresh fish and seafood grill up nicely as well.
  • If you like burgers, try making your own with ground beef, lamb, pork, bison, chicken or turkey.
  • If you like sausages, look for fresh, traditionally made versions if possible.

And go with relatively leaner cuts, as fattier cuts drip more lipids into the grill, causing greater PAH formation.

Include lots of fruits and veggies

Fruits and veggies are your friends. Pair them with some grilled meats and they can also help fight any potential HCA / PAH damage.

First, like herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables (especially colorful ones) are full of health-promoting chemical compounds. In particular, foods that inhibit the mutagenic activity of HCAs include:

  • cherries
  • dried plums
  • apples
  • blueberries
  • red grapes
  • kiwi
  • watermelon
  • spinach
  • parsley
  • green and black tea
  • red wine

Sounds like a good summer grill menu to us. Perhaps a mixed green salad, iced green tea, and fruit for dessert?

You can also use some of these foods in your marinades. For example, mash cherries with lime juice, olive oil, and spices of your choice, then marinate your meat before cooking.

Second, fruits and vegetables help the liver remove potential toxins from the body. In particular, cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc.) seem to be extra helpful.

The probiotics in fermented dairy foods (like a yogurt dip) are also effective at neutralizing HCA mutagenic activity.

Interestingly, the yeast in beer also seems to have some neutralizing ability. So even if you don’t use a beer marinade, drinking a beer with your grilled meat can significantly lower the mutagenic activity of the HCAs that formed.

Don’t have to tell me twice.

Strategize while cooking

These tricks help reduce the formation of  HCAs and PAHs:

  • Cut your meat into smaller pieces to shorten cooking time, which decreases the risk of charring and burning, and lowers the exposure of the meat to high temperatures.
  • Flip meat frequently to further reduce charring and burning.
  • Cook meat on medium to medium-high heat. Longer cooking times and higher temperatures can both pose health risks, so a moderate approach is best.
  • Cover the grill with foil to reduce drips and flare-ups.

What to do next

  • Cook at home. If grilling helps you do more home cooking, go for it. Enjoy your grilled meat as part of well-balanced meals. Share the fun of summer grilling with family and friends. Meanwhile, think about what you’re putting on your plate alongside the grilled meat. Mayo-drenched potato salad and a pile of chips? Or a fresh salad and a skewer of grilled veggies? The usual dose of common sense applies.
  • Keep the risks in perspective. Overall, HCAs and PAHs make a minor contribution to your cancer risk. Being sedentary, having excess body fat, and eating a diet rich in highly processed foods are much greater risk factors. If you have some slow-cooked, pit-roasted ribs in your life once in a while, you’ll probably survive. (And likely be happier overall. Don’t be afraid of your food.)
  • Use grill-friendly seasonings and marinades. Use the power of herbs and spices to lower your risk (and make more flavorful food). Marinate your meat in acidic marinades rather than sugary sauces.
  • Eat good food. Quality meat is better for you than the processed stuff. It also generally needs less time on the grill. (Who wants to cook a pricey grass-fed steak to well-done?) Choose leaner cuts where possible. Add lots of fruits and veggies to the mix, and you’re golden.
  • Grill smart. Low-and-slow BBQ might taste good, but it’s not ideal for overall health. High temperatures can be dangerous, too. Go for medium to medium-high heat, cook your meat to the safety standards, and no more. Flip the meat regularly to avoid flare ups. Choose smaller, quick-cooking cuts when you can. And hey, if you just want a burger and a beer on a hot summer day? Enjoy it and move on.

What to read next

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If you’re interested in looking and feeling your best this summer, we strongly recommend you read this Personal Coaching Executive Summary. You’ll discover if you’re a good fit for the program and learn more details on Precision Nutrition’s coaching methodology.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.