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Get Your Grill On: Navigating the Charred Side of Grilling

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Warm summer days and nights practically beg for a grilled meal. Burgers, chicken, fish…whatever you choose, the smoky taste from grilled food is a rite of passage to summertime dining. But before you shutter the indoor kitchen for summer in lieu of al fresco cooking, consider this: the food you grill may be increasing your risk for cancer. Research has long suggested a connection between eating grilled meats, especially those that are well done, and stomach, pancreatic and colorectal cancer.

It can be so confusing—first you hear that for health’s sake, it’s better to prepare your foods with little fat, and an easy way to do that is to grill. But then, there are the warnings about grilling and an increase in cancer risk. What gives? No need to hang up your grilling tools just yet—there’s plenty you can do to enjoy the thrill of the grill and still keep your meals healthy and safe.

To understand how to protect yourself, first you need a little background science. The culprits that link cancer and grilling lie in two specific classes of carcinogens, otherwise known as cancer causing substances, and are found in high concentrations in grilled meats. The first, called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), are formed when muscle meats like beef, pork, poultry and even fish, are cooked at a high temperature as with grilling. However, it’s important to note that grilling isn’t the only way to create HCAs—you’re at risk any time high heat meets meat, like in pan frying or broiling.     

The other class of carcinogens is called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and, unfortunately, can be found on more than just meats. Because these carcinogens are formed on the surface of foods, anything you grill that absorbs smoke can be affected. So, in other words, you might be getting around toxic HCAs with a grilled ear of corn, but if you’re cooking it alongside a greasy burger that is dripping fat onto the heat source below and causing the grill to smoke, then you’re still at risk for PAHs.  

To minimize your exposure to carcinogens when grilling meats, follow these tips:  

Be Brief
The longer your food stays on the grill, the more likely it is to pick up carcinogens, so it’s best to keep grill times to a minimum (plus, you’ll save your propane if you’re using gas!). Avoiding cooking meat to the point of being well done is one way to cut time—studies show that people who eat well done meat are 60 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. But if a cooler center isn’t your style (and not to mention simply isn’t safe for foods like chicken), getting a head start on cooking by zapping meat in the microwave to begin the process is a good solution. Some research suggests that microwaving for just two minutes can decrease HCAs by 90 percent. Also, thin cuts of meat and small bites (like kebabs) that don’t take as long to cook, and therefore stay on the grill for a shorter period of time, are also good ways to cut grilling time. Besides, there’s more fun to be had than laboring over a hot grill.

Keep a Safe Distance
Adjusting your grill rack to the highest distance away from the flame is another way to cut down on the carcinogens that can be generated with grilling. Another way to reduce exposure to the immediate, charring flame is to cook your meat on the coolest section of the grill (like around the edges or over a turned-off section of a dual burner grill).   

Keep It Lean
If you’re health-conscious, no doubt you’re probably already choosing lean cuts of meat over those higher in fat. But ok, let’s be honest: who doesn’t splurge on a nicely marbled steak from time to time? Next time you consider cuts, your motivation to go lean might span beyond your arteries. That’s because the higher the content of fat in your meat, the more likely it is that your grill will flare and smoke (and generate distribution of carcinogens) because of fat dripping down to the heat source below. If you can’t bear to reel in your splurge, trimming extra fat from the meat can help cut down on the flaring.  

Take the Temperature
Resist the temptation to crank up the heat on your grill and literally fire your food. The higher the heat, the more carcinogens that are produced. In fact, studies show a threefold increase in HCA content when cooking temperature is increased from 392 degrees to 482 degrees Fahrenheit. And besides being bad for your health, grilling at high temperatures is bad for your chef rep. There’s no quicker way to turn a great piece of fillet mignon into a hockey puck than to set the temperature too high and grill it too long. Using an instant read thermometer can help take the guesswork out of grilling, allowing you to take food off when the temperature says it’s done, not overdone.  

Char No More
If you’re part of the population that actually likes your ‘dogs a little blackened, it might be time to change your tastes. Since carcinogens are concentrated in charred portions of meats, to cut your cancer risk, it’s best to trim and discard those pieces before eating—or, better yet, cook meat until it’s done, but not blackened. And keeping your grill clean is not just a matter of cleanliness, since removing charred debris from previous meals can help reduce your carcinogen exposure as well. 

Add Flavor (And Protection)
It turns out that marinades add more than flavor to your food—they also add a protective element, too, since they reduce the development of some carcinogens. In fact, marinating meats can reduce HCA formation by 96 percent. Though it’s not certain what specific ingredients in marinades provide the HCA-reducing benefits, recent Kansas State University research suggests that it may be the herbs and spices in marinades that offer protection. And it doesn’t require a lot of forethought, either. Just 10 minutes of marinating can make a difference.

Forget the Fork
Though your grilling utensil set probably came with a long-handled fork, it’s best to only use a spatula or tongs for turning meat. Piercing food while turning with a fork allows another opportunity for juices and fat to drip down to the heat source and create smoke and flares below.  Plus, any time you lose juices from piercing (or when overzealous grillers press on meats), you practically guarantee a dry piece of meat.

So, with a few little fixes, you can make grilling safe for summer, and enjoy your burgers and hotdogs worry-free.