Outdoor barbecues are a great way to spend time with family and friends. However, it’s important to know that grilling improperly can actually expose your food — and whoever eats it — to cancer-causing agents.
About Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)
One of these cancer-causing agents, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH, forms when fat drips from meat as you grill, then flares up, producing smoke that coats the food. There are two ways you can reduce or stop PAHs from forming:
- Decrease the amount of smoke produced by choosing lean cuts of meat, poultry and fish. Avoid using a fork to puncture the cuts and wrap them in foil.
- Marinate meats, as studies show this may decrease carcinogens by up to 90 percent. A marinade works best at reducing PAH when it contains an acid ingredient such as lemon juice or vinegar. Marinades add flavor to whatever you are grilling.
About Heterocyclic Amines (HCA)
When meats, poultry and fish are grilled at extremely high temperatures, Heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, can form. To reduce the presence of this carcinogen:
- Cook at a lower temperature and increase the distance between the heat source and the meat.
- Limit the portions of well-done meats that you eat and avoid charred meats altogether.
- Precook meats in the microwave prior to grilling for several minutes. This can remove up to 95 percent of HCAs, according to researchers from the University of California-Davis.
- Flip hamburgers often. The same University of California-Davis scientists found that if you flip hamburger patties every minute, it can reduce HCA formation by up to 100 percent.
More tips for healthy grilling
Here are some other healthy grilling options you can try that will reduce, or even eliminate, PAH and HCA:
- Grill vegetables and fruits instead of meats, since they do not produce PAH or HCA when grilled. Some that work well on the grill include zucchini, yellow squash, butternut squash, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, potatoes, eggplant and corn.
- Choose lean meats, such as “loin” cuts of beef and pork (sirloin, tenderloin), skinless poultry, fish and tofu to reduce PAH and HCA.
Try this healthy grilling recipe
Next time you want to grill, Julie Holbrook, MS, RD, LDN, Registered Dietitian with Centegra Healthy Living Institute, recommends marinating boneless, skinless chicken breasts in this marinade:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Zest from 1 lemon
2 Tbsp. maple butter
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tsp. minced garlic
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
Combine all ingredients into a plastic bag and shake, then add chicken breasts. Marinate in the refrigerator for 6-24 hours. Shake occasionally. When you are ready to grill, remove chicken breasts and discard the unused marinade.
Grill healthy — yet don’t undercook either
Finally, a word of caution: even though you want to avoid overcooking meats, be sure you don’t undercook them. If they aren’t cooked completely, you put yourself and others at risk for an illness-causing bacteria, such as E. coli.
- Use a meat thermometer to determine when meats, poultry and fish are properly cooked. Poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165° to 180° F, ground beef, pork and lamb should be between 160° and 170°, and beef steaks and roasts should be in the 145° to 160° range.
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