Grilling season is in full swing with the annual pastime of celebrating the warm days of summer, vacations, and camping. The art of grilling and outdoor cooking is being embraced like never before triggered by staying at home the last two years because of covid and now with the cost of traveling.
Watching and smelling a sizzling piece of meat cooking on the grill punches our appetite into great expectations but lurking behind that yummy meal may be a health risk. Meats ideal for grilling like ribs, steaks, hot dogs, and hamburgers, are high in saturated fat and processed meats, like hot dogs, contain sodium that contribute to heart disease. High heat, direct cooking also may increase risk for cancer.
Grilling and Potential Cancer Risks
The possible risk of cancer comes from chemicals formed in meat cooked at high temperatures. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals that form when meats like beef, pork, fish, or chicken are cooked at high temperatures such as pan frying or direct grilling over a flame.
As amino acids (building blocks of protein) in meat muscle like beef, pork, fish, and chicken are exposed to high heat and charred they form heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Dripping fat and meat juices cause flames. Then the smoke containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can cling to the surface of the meat. HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic meaning they can damage DNA after they are metabolized during digestion. Exposure to these compounds may increase risk for cancer in some people especially colon and stomach cancers.
Healthy Foods to Grill
You may never be talked out of grilling, but you could rethink your choices.
- Choose leaner proteins like chicken and fish that cook quickly at lower temperatures. If beef is a must, choose leaner cuts. Trim fat. Flip frequently to avoid char marks.
- Use marinades and rubs for added flavor. New research shows these methods of seasoning may prevent the formation of HCAs and PAHs.
- Cut lean meat into skewer size pieces. These pieces cook faster at lower temperatures. Add vegetables to make shish kabobs.
- Grill vegetables to make a healthy side dish. Try sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, and zucchini.
- Clean your grill to remove old, charred food that may contain HCAs and PAHs.
Grilled Red Peppers
I always have one or two red peppers in my refrigerator as “refrigerator” decoration because of their color, shape, crisp flavor, and their willingness to jump into so many recipes.
(1) Cut two red peppers in half from top to bottom. Brush with olive oil. Preheat grill to 450 degrees. Place skin side down on the grill and roast about 15 minutes until tender. Turn to keep peppers from burning.
(2) Place in a bowl and cover or in a paper bag. The steam will loosen the outer skin that you can peel off.
(3) Meanwhile combine 3 Tbsp. olive oil with 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 clove mince garlic, 1/2 tsp. salt, dash of pepper. Drizzle over the peppers and chill to blend flavors. Peppers can be cut to place in a salad, on pizza, or as a plate garnish accompanied by fresh basil leaves.
Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator
Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.