Most people enjoy cooking outdoors on the grill during the warm summer months. This activity appeals to the prototypical human omnivore as well as to others with more restrictive dietary approaches. Many foods are great grilled, from steak to poultry to fish and veggies. Have you ever considered how grilling foods may alter the nutrient content of the cooked foods? How about when certain foods become black and charred from direct contact with open flames or high temperatures? How does this affect the health benefits of foods we typically cook on the grill? Great questions! Let’s take a closer look at these issues.
Many years ago, scientists discovered that meats (in particular red meat and chicken) cooked at very high temperature over open flames formed heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and aromatic hydrocarbons. It turns out that these chemical compounds have toxic and potential mutagenic effects when consumed by humans. Animal studies also confirmed that both compounds are carcinogenic (i.e. cancer-causing). Moreover, observational studies have linked higher intake of these compounds with increased incidence of colorectal cancer in humans. Sounds quite scary, especially for those home grill masters. The good news, however, is that you can take precautionary steps to decrease the production of these compounds and still enjoy grilled foods.
Here are some tips to make grilled meats healthier (and some alternatives to grilling).
1) Grill vegetables or seafood. These foods typically produce much less of these toxic compounds.
2) Marinate meats prior to grilling. What you use to marinate the meat and how long seem to not matter.
3) Microwave food before cooking and pour off the juices. 1-2 minutes in the microwave significantly reduces HCA levels.
4) Flip foods frequently. Doing so every 1-2 minutes keeps the surface temperature lower and reduces the production of HCAs.
5) Keep grilled foods moist. Drier and more well done foods produce more HCAs and other toxic compounds. This may explain why grilled hot dogs and sausages form less HCAs, since they are encased with an outer layer which prevents the meat from drying out during cooking.
6) Don’t eat the drippings from grilled meat and poultry, as HCAs and other toxic compounds may be more concentrated here that in the meat itself.
7) Consider alternative cooking methods. The cooking methods that produce the most to least HCAs: grilling and barbecuing (most), broiling and pan-frying (still on the higher side), baking, roasting and stir-frying (less) and boiling, steaming, poaching or stewing, and microwaving (least).
The Bottom Line: Enjoyed grilled foods, but keeping these guidelines in mind will lead to a healthier experience that can be just as tasty as the old “burn it to a crisp” method.