From barbecue season through tailgating time, grilling is more of a lifestyle than a method of cooking food. It can be a delicious part of healthy living if you follow these tips to maximize flavor while minimizing your cancer risk.
Can eating grilled foods really increase cancer risk? Unfortunately, certain aspects of the grilling process can cause changes in food that may contribute to your cancer risk. Although more studies are needed to confirm the link between grilling and cancer in humans, it’s certainly worthwhile to decrease your exposure to any possible carcinogens. The danger comes from two sources:
- Cooking meats, fish and poultry at high temperatures causes changes to the proteins they contain. Carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) can form under these circumstances. Ingesting HCAs has been shown to cause DNA changes in laboratory studies, and therefore may increase the risk of cancer.
- Those coveted “grill marks” that form on steak, chicken and other barbecue fare are actually laden with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), another potentially carcinogenic substance that forms when fat from meat combines with the grill’s fire and causes smoke and char.
Can these risks be avoided? Absolutely! In fact, grilling can be one of the healthiest methods of cooking if you pay attention to a few factors:
- Not so hot: The typically high temperature most people use to grill contributes significantly to the formation of harmful HCAs and PAHs. You can help avoid this by reducing the exposure of the item that is being grilled by starting or finishing the cooking process in the microwave or oven.
- Re-think the grill marks: We’re conditioned to expect char on our barbecued meat. However, just as we now know that a suntan is evidence of skin damage, we also know that grill marks are a sign of potentially dangerous carcinogens. The wonderful flavors of grilling can be developed without the high temperatures that cause char, so give grill marks a pass.
- Cut the fat: The higher the fat content of the item, the more fatty juices drip onto the grill causing dangerous smoke and char. Avoid this by choosing leaner cuts of meat or picking inherently less-fatty protein sources like chicken breast or fish. You can also try cutting meat into smaller pieces and making kebabs; since they cook faster, there’s less opportunity for char to form.
- Turn, turn, turn: Flipping or turning items often can help them cook more evenly with less opportunity for char formation.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment: Add that barbecue flavor to your meal using fresh, seasonal veggies or try grilled fruit as an unexpected dessert! Since most fruits and vegetables lack proteins that can be altered by grilling – and don’t have fats that can drip and turn to char – they’re the healthiest items to cook.
- Protect your proteins and produce: Form a barrier between your food and the grill by placing items in a wire grilling basket. These are available at many home and kitchen stores, and can help you keep the char that forms on the grill from touching your food.
Get started We’ve compiled some of our favorite summer grilling recipes from Mass General’s “Be Fit” healthy eating program and other trusted sources. Give them a try, but remember: You can make all your favorite summer recipes healthier if you keep our healthy grilling tips in mind. Enjoy!