The Dangers of Grilling

The staff at Enhanced Medical Care is enjoying the warmer Boston weather and hope you all are too. The summer is in full swing and backyard barbecues are fired up! Even when taking every precaution about being outside (applying sunscreen, using insect repellent and checking for ticks, and being vigilant around the grill), you could be exposing yourself to more health dangers than you may realize. This brings us to the question, “is grilling bad for my health?”

The blackened areas on charred and grilled flesh foods (meat, poultry, fish) are a source of carcinogenic chemicals.  These chemical directly damage DNA, our genetic material, and initiate mutations that can lead to the development of cancer. Grilling protein-filled foods such as meat and fish creates two kinds of chemical compounds that may contribute to cancer: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

HCAs form in meat when it’s cooked at a high temperature. While frying and broiling produce these chemicals as well, those charred bits at the edges of barbecued meat contain HCAs in their purest state. HCAs, which are also found in cigarette smoke, have been shown to cause cancer in organs including the stomach, colon, liver and skin–but only in animal studies. It’s unclear whether HCAs cause the same problems in people. Still, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that the chemicals are “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”

PAHs, the second type of compound, are formed when juices from meat drip onto coals or other hot surfaces and create smoke. The smoke contains these carcinogens, which are deposited onto the surface of meat as it swirls around the food.

Unlike meat, vegetables and fruits don’t create carcinogens when they char. But the small cancer risk associated with grilling meat isn’t so great that you need to forgo hamburgers, hot dogs and steaks altogether. Taking a few precautions while barbecuing will minimize the health risks without sacrificing that delicious charcoal taste.

Marinade your Meat

Marinades made with vinegar or lemon act as an “invisible shield” that changes the acidity of the meat and prevents PAHs from sticking. (On the other hand, sugary marinades such as barbecue sauce that encourage charring should be used only during the last one to two minutes on the grill.) Likewise, using marinades with herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic, basil or parsley can lower HCAs by up to 87% (and adds some antioxidant action to boot). Be sure to marinade your meat in the fridge and only eat the marinade if it has been thoroughly heated to prevent bacterial illness.

Buy Lean Cuts

Buying lean cuts of meat, trimming off most of the fat and wrapping foods like fish in a foil packet will all help cut down on smoke by reducing the amount of juices that drip onto the grill. Use a drip rack to catch the fat too.

Partially Precook Your Food

Using the microwave to partially cook meats before grilling or broiling can cut HCAs by as much as 90%. This reduces the amount of time the food is on the grill and allows some of the juices to drain beforehand.

Eat More Colorful Fruits and Vegetables

Plant-based diets contain the fewest cancer promoters.  Fruits and vegetables also provide an abundance of cancer-fighting antioxidants that reduce the oxidative stress leading to DNA damage. Plant-based diets lead to lower levels of inflammation which is an environment that is protective to the cells and the DNA, inhibiting cancer rather than promoting it. Try grilling vegetables and fruits, which do not form cancer-causing chemicals when cooked at high heats.

Some other helpful hints to keep your grilling risks minimal:

  • Cook with less intense heat and lower temperatures (applicable to all cooking methods)
  • Use hardwood chips from hickory and maple, or charcoal briquettes  which burn at lower temperatures
  • Be sure to oil your grill to keep food from sticking
  • Keep your grill clean and scrape off all the charred residue every time you cook so that you don’t transfer carcinogenic chemicals to your food the next time you use it
  • Avoid well-done meats and do not eat the overly blackened and charred areas
  • Use thinner cuts, or cut the meat into cubes to help it cook more quickly and make sure to flip the meat before it is charred
  • Remove the skin from chicken and salmon
  • Defrost all meat before grilling
  • Avoid having flames come in contact with the food and avoid cooking directly over the heat source
  • Remove food from the grill as soon as it is cooked- the longer meat is cooked, the more dangerous it becomes
Remember that these hazards are not meant to alarm, but to inform. There is no reason that you cannot enjoy your weekend cookout, especially when taking all of these precautions while whipping up your meal.
For more information about how to stay healthy this summer or about our concierge medical practice, contact us!
To your health!