Warmer weather means more time spent outside, which also means that it’s time to fire up the grill for outdoor cooking. While nothing says summer quite like the smell of grilling burgers or salmon, you may also be hesitant since you’ve heard that grilling can release harmful toxins. So is grilling bad for you? What’s the real story?
While grilling itself has not been linked to specific disease-causing chemicals, there are two specific compounds that can be released while cooking meats on the grill that may be harmful to your health.
HCAs and PAHs
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are produced when high-protein foods like meat are grilled at high temperatures. They are a result of creatine (a compound that supplies energy to nerves and muscles) and sugars. Although both creatine and sugars are found naturally in meat, cooking at high temperatures causes them to form potentially harmful HCAs (this compound is also found in cigarettes and car exhaust fumes).
Additionally, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when fat from meats drips into the grill. That fat then creates smoke that deposits the compounds into the meat. Both HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic compounds, meaning that they can cause changes in DNA that could potentially increase the risk of certain serious diseases. (Learn more about HCAs and PAHs here.)
While there is evidence to suggest that people who consume well-done meats on a regular basis are 60% more at risk to develop pancreatic and stomach issues, as well as other serious illnesses, HCAs and PAHs are only capable of damaging the body after being metabolized by specific enzymes. Luckily, there are a few ways that you can reduce the amounts of these compounds in your food, and we’ve outlined some suggestions so you can have a healthier and safer grilling experience.
Tips for Healthy Summer Grilling
1) Before you start cooking, make sure to clean your grill
- Removing any excess charred materials before and after grilling not only helps keep your grill in tip-top shape, it also keeps burned remnants from sticking to the grates and becoming part of your future meals. Try using a high-quality brush to clean your grill, or check out this article to learn natural ways to clean your grill.
2) Turn down the heat
- HCAs and PAHs are most present in well-done and charred meats (as well as a result of cooking meats at high temperatures), so making sure that your burners aren’t up too high – since HCAs and PAHs are released when meat is cooked at over 300 degrees – during grilling can reduce the risk of charring. Additionally, flipping your meat often as you cook helps to prevent charring (and makes your meat taste better!).
3) Choose your meats carefully
- Since HCAs and PAHs occur when fat drips onto the grill, using lean cuts and making sure to trim excess fat can reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs that occur while cooking. If you do notice burned or charred bits on your meat, avoid eating them to reduce exposure.
- You can also look for organic and grass-fed/pasture raised meats, which are higher in omega-3 fatty acids and contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which can help you maintain healthy fat deposition.
4) Add vegetables
- Luckily for vegans and vegetarians, HCAs and PAHs don’t occur in vegetables (since they are not as high in protein), so supplementing your grilled meats with fruits and vegetables can help you limit your contact with these potentially harmful compounds. In the summer it can be fun to take advantage of fresh produce and include vegetables like asparagus, eggplant, and bell peppers. You can also try grilling fruits like pineapple, watermelon, and peaches. We’ve also got some great ideas for meatless grilling ideas here!
5) Use a marinade
- In a study conducted by Kansas State University, researchers discovered that marinating your meat for 30 minutes to 2 hours reduces the occurrence of HCAs by an average of 57%-88%. They found that using an oil and vinegar-based marinade supplemented with herbs like rosemary and thyme was most effective. In fact, when meat was rubbed with rosemary, HCA levels dropped by 100%.
- If you want to make your own natural marinade, consider using a 100% pure rice bran oil. Rice bran oil provides a great nutty aroma and will add a deeper flavor to your meat. Its higher flash point and low smoke make it ideal for grilling. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also substitute cold-pressed, organic coconut oil (which is also available in a form that remains liquid). We also love using organic apple cider vinegar in our marinades—in addition to its germ-fighting and cleansing properties, it also provides a great kick to your marinade.
For more ideas, check out our guide to unique and healthy summer grilling recipes!
Do have any favorite marinades? What oils and spices do you use when grilling? Share your thoughts in the comments!