As summer approaches and temperatures rise, many of us start moving outdoors for barbecues and other delicious grilled recipes. While this is a fun, social part of life, grilling can come with some health risks—unless you take a few easy precautions.
According to the National Cancer Institute, cooking meats at high temperatures creates DNA-altering chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs):
- PAHs are created when the meat’s fat and juices drip onto the fire cooking it. This causes smoke that then sticks to the meat.
- HCAs form when the meat’s amino acids and creatine (a compound in the muscles) react at high temperatures.
Both HCAs and PAHs are known as carcinogens because they may increase the risk of cancer.
This doesn’t mean grilling is always unsafe or unhealthy, though. You just need to follow a few tips for healthy summer grilling ideas that don’t create hazardous substances.
9 Summer Grilling Ideas to Avoid Carcinogens
While you’re enjoying the warmer weather and grilling for you and your family, make sure the methods are keeping everyone safe. Here are nine summer grilling ideas that can reduce your exposure to unhealthy elements.
1. Avoid High and Prolonged Cooking Times
HCAs start to form at around 325°F. To avoid producing these potential carcinogens, keep the heat lower and avoid overcooking by not exposing meat to a hot metal surface or open flame.
High heat is discouraged, but also make sure your meats are cooking enough. USDA recommendations say the best internal temperature for ground beef is 160°F, for example. These will both decrease your chance of producing HCAs while also avoiding salmonella.
2. Flip the Meat Often
Turning meat continuously when cooked at high heats can also help reduce HCA creation. According to a study published in the Journal of Food Protection from 2003, flipping burgers every 30 seconds can also reduce escherichia coli (also known as E. coli) bacteria.
3. Avoid Flame Flare-ups
Flare-ups happen when the fire shoots up around the meat you’re grilling. This can greatly increase the chance of HCAs forming.
Instead of setting your barbecue on blow torch levels, use a medium-high temperature and meat the meat at least every 30 seconds. If this is hard to do because you have several burgers grilling at once, grill one side quickly, then turn off the burner directly underneath that meat while leaving the others on. This prevents flare-ups but continues to cook much like an oven.
A water squirt bottle can also help control flare-ups when they happen.
4. User Leaner Meats and Smaller Cuts
Meats with less fat reduces the chance of flare-ups and also shortens cooking time, which decreases the chances of HCA formation.
Here are some other lean meat tips for healthy summer grilling ideas:
- Choose round or loin cuts of red meat and pork.
- Stick with “select” or “choice” grades to get the least amounts of fat.
- If you can’t get away from the fattier portions, try trimming excess fat or using smaller pieces of meat at a time to shorten cooking time.
- You can also cover the grill with punctured aluminum foil to prevent fat from dripping onto the hot coals and producing PAHs.
5. Remove Charred Meat Portions
If any part of your meat gets overcooked and charred, remove it so no one consumes it.
6. Discard Meat Drippings
Most people get rid of the drippings anyway, but if you’re someone who usually uses them to make gravy or other side dishes, maybe refrain from doing that this year. Meat drippings can increase HCA and PAH exposure and are best discarded completely.
7. Marinate Meat for 30 Minutes
Some research shows marinating meat or using rubs before grilling may inhibit HCA formation. Plus, it’s tasty!
About one half cup of marinade per pound of meat is best in most cases. Even just a few minutes of marination can help, but marinating longer will add more flavor.
8. Grill Plenty of Vegetables (and Fruits!) Too
Balancing out summer meats with veggies is a good idea in any situation. Vegetables are low in calories and carbs and high in fiber. Plus, vegetables don’t form HCAs when grilled like meat can.
Try grilling raw vegetables like zucchini, squash, portobello mushrooms, romaine, asparagus, and eggplant for a nice vegan or vegetarian option. And don’t forget fruits! Fruits like pineapple are a great addition to meat dishes or good on their own as a healthy grilled summer dessert.
Note: You should still avoid charring fruits and veggies, as overcooking anything can produce other carcinogens.
9. Opt for Fish Over Beef
Add in some heart-healthy options by grilling salmon, herring, or trout along with the other meats. You’ll get some beneficial omega-3s in your day.
Grill Healthfully This Summer
There’s potential to choose healthier options year round. Use the healthy summer grilling ideas above to reduce your chance of carcinogen exposure and feel your best this season.