June 28, 2021
Keep Grilling Season Fun and Healthy
by Mona Jauhar RDN, LD
Alright, so it is that smoldering, sizzling time of the year again. While many of you might think that a successful backyard cookout is simply the ability to buy some steaks and light a fire, in reality, it requires much more to get a barbecue right! A growing body of research finds that the grilling season could mean much less fun and more stress for your health if you eat charred meat or inhale too much smoke.
The grill drill
Most Americans own a barbecue grill, and many grill at least twice a week during the summer. But as popular as grilling is, it comes with a number of health hazards. When meat is cooked on a charcoal grill at high temperatures, it releases two highly carcinogenic substances: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Moreover, grills are hotbed for food poisoning. They can harbor pieces of food for days, weeks, even months after the dish has been consumed. The food that remains on the grills can introduce any number of bacteria (and even waste) to the grill’s surface. Bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella are regular residents in chicken, beef, and meats. If you don't cook meat to a high enough temperature to kill the bacteria or other germs, they can wind up in the intestinal tract and lead to symptoms like vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.
So, before you fire up the grill:
- Be sure to preheat your grill thoroughly, 5 minutes for charcoal after adding the lit coals, or 15 minutes for gas over high heat. This helps scrape off any residual food stuck to grill grates and is another extra step to help prevent food from sticking.
- A good scrub: When you first use the grill in summer, clean it with a wire brush. The high heat of the grill should kill all the pathogens, but this extra step will help you make sure you're being food safe. The best time to clean your grill’s grates is immediately after it’s preheated and before you begin cooking again. That’s when the grease and residue on the grill grates will be easiest to remove. While a wire brush is very effective, you could also try the natural method of using an onion: Cut an onion in half and rub the cut side on the hot grate to remove grime.
- Marinate your meat.: A report from Kansas State University showed that marinating all types of meat can cut carcinogens up to 88 percent by penetrating the muscle tissue with antioxidants. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that grillers marinate all meat, including beef and chicken, for at least 30 minutes in the fridge before cooking. It creates a protective barrier on the outside of the meat that prevents flames from causing carcinogens.
- Ditch the charcoal and wood chips: Use a gas grill to avoid charring and reduce smoke and PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Barbecue smoke contains PAHs, which are carcinogenic and easily absorbed in the lungs. Smoke from charcoal or wood also produces hydrocarbons, a type of volatile organic compound, and soot particles, which are inhaled deep in the lungs and contribute to a variety of respiratory illnesses.
- Pre-cook your meat: Food purists might cringe at this idea, but research says that proteins cooked briefly before heading to the grill can reduce levels of HCAs (Heterocyclic amines). Just make sure that the food goes immediately on the preheated grill to complete cooking. Never brown or partially cook meat or poultry to refrigerate and finish cooking later because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed.
- Trim the fat: When fat falls from your meat and into the fire, it causes a cloud of PAH-filled smoke. So the more fat on the meat, the more smoke it will create. Look for leaner cuts of meat or trim some of the fat before cooking. Choose leaner cuts of meat, such as loin, round, flank or boneless and skinless, and trim off any visible fat. Thinner cuts of meat cut down on cooking time without giving up flavor.
- Don’t overcook or burn the meat: Cook over lower heat and avoid the flames. Eating your meat medium-rare tastes better and has fewer HCAs and PAHs. If you do burn it, don’t eat the charred bits. Flip the meat frequently to prevent charring on either side.
- Eat a salad on the side: Add some vegetables or fresh fruits to your grill. They are low in fat but high in fiber and cancer-fighting antioxidants that might neutralize the harm from nitrites. You could grill mushrooms, onions, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, corn, potatoes, and green and red peppers. For grilling fruits, use peaches, papayas, pineapples, and mangos.