It’s summer, and the allure of easy grilled fare is undeniable. But when prepared the wrong way, the bronzed chicken and flame-licked burgers families often crave can be as troubling as those vintage baby oil tans. Luckily, if you understand where the risks lie and how to minimize them, you’ll be able to fire up that grill—guilt-free—all summer long.
How Grilling Can Harm
When muscle meat (including red meat, poultry, and fin fish) is cooked at temperatures over 300, like by grilling or high heat pan-frying, carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed. A second set of compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are created when fat drips down onto hot coals, or into your grill, and smoke rises back up onto your food adhering to its surface. (HCAs don’t form when veggies and fruit are grilled, but PAHs can, if the produce is cooked next to muscle meats.)
Animal studies reveal a direct link between exposure to HCAs and PAHs and several types of cancer, including breast and colon. And though there haven’t been any conclusive studies, experts believe the risk extends to people, too. “HCAs can damage the DNA of our genes and begin the process of cancer development,” says William McCarthy, Ph.D., professor of public health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Steps to Eat Safer
Here’s the good news: Take the right steps while you shop, prep, and cook, and you’ll avoid those dangerous HCA’s and PAHs.
At the Market
Buy less red meat. “From a cancer perspective. the greatest offenders are processed and red meat, which should be eaten in thoughtful moderation, whether you’re grilling or not,” says Colleen Doyle, director of Nutrition and Physical Activity for the American Cancer Society. Doyle recommends giving meat a secondary role on the menu and upping the proportion of fresh veggies and fruits–like fajitas with onion, sweet peppers, and bits of sliced beef.
Pick quick-cook foods. HCA formation increases the longer food is on the grill, so go for thin cuts of meat (like skirt or flank steak), or quick-cooking fish. Kebabs are another great choice, since the small cubes of meat cook up in a flash. Cut your risk further by cooking all the meats on low heat, which also helps reduce HCA formation, advises McCarthy.
In the Kitchen
Trim the Fat. Less fat means less smoke and fewer PAHs, so opt for lean cuts of of meat whenever possible. If the meat you’ll be grilling does heave visible fat, trim it aggressively and remove the skin from the chicken.
Marinate. Marinating meat or poultry for at least an hour before grilling is one of the easiest ways to reduce carcinogens–and boost flavor. Marinades help inhibit the carcinogen-forming reaction that occurs during the cooking process; those containing antioxidant-rich herbs and spices (fresh or dried) like rosemary, oregano, and allspice can reduce grilling-generated HCAs by up to 88 percent.
Start cooking before you start grilling. Two minutes of precooking (depending on the meat’s thickness) in the microwave means your food will be exposed to the grill’s high heat for less time, reducing the formation of HCAs by up to 90 percent.
By the Grill
Bar the Char. Charred meat contains the highest levels of HCAs, so always brush away any bits left on the grill before you cook, and scrape off any char that forms on the meat, poultry, or fish before serving. You don’t need to scrape grilled fruits and veggies unless they’re cooked next to meat; alone, they don’t pose the same HCA danger.
Avoid direct contact with flames. Poke some holes in the large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and lay it over the grill. Any fat on the meat will still drip through the holes and cause some smoke, but the foil will minimize the smoke’s direct contact with your food.