Grilling and barbecuing has been a part of American culture since colonial times. Favorite summer activity for many, it brings people together for family gatherings and backyard barbecue parties.
Recently there has been an increasing amount of discussion related to the health risks related to eating barbecue food. More specifically, there are claims that grilled and smoked meat increases the risk of cancer.
Is there any truth to these claims? Can we do something to avoid the possible risks?
Well, I have good news for all of you who love barbecue. First, we must admit that there are some possible health risks that can be linked to grilled meat. But there are also many ways to make grilled food more healthy.
In this article, we will start with the positive and look at the health benefits of grilling. Then we will address the possible risks that eating grilled meat might have. After that, I will share my best advice on how to keep on grilling and enjoying life, without exposing yourself to any unnecessary health risks.
Grilled Food is Actually Healthy!
By default, grilling your food can be more healthy compared to other cooking methods. Grilling meat or veggies offers some surprising health benefits that many of us haven’t thought about.
Even if you choose to grill a fatty piece of meat or ground meat with high fat content, most of the excess fat will melt and drip away when grilling it. A study from 2010 also indicates that, compared to grilling, fried meats tend to have higher levels of unhealthy trans fatty acids.
Grilling vegetables is a great way to cook them. It’s convenient, preserves nutrients, and grilled veggies are delicious!
If you choose to boil your vegetables their vitamin C content will be reduced by about 50% because they get exposed to the hot water. When you grill them instead, they can retain much more of this precious vitamin.
Possible Health Risks of Grilled Food
The health risks associated with grilled food are mostly related to carcinogens that are formed when meat is cooked in high heat and charred. Another common claim is that grilled food contains a lot of calories and thus, encourages weight gain. Let’s take a closer look at these assertions.
There are studies indicating that eating grilled meat may increase the risk of getting cancer. The reason for this is that meat cooked in high temperatures for a long time usually contains an increased amount of carcinogens.
These carcinogens belong to 2 separate groups, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
The heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed when amino acids, sugars, and creatine, substances found in muscle meats, are exposed to high temperatures. Grilling is not the only method that can induce the formation of HCAs. Frying meat on a hot pan has the same effect.
The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are produced from fat and juices of meat touching a hot surface and forming smoke or flames. A considerable amount of PAHs is formed especially when grilling or smoking fatty meats. When the fat melts and drips it can flare up. This will form PAHs that then stick to the surface of the meat that is being cooked.
There is no direct evidence that these carcinogens cause cancer on humans. However, a review study from 2010 concludes that high exposure to meat carcinogens may increase the risk of several types of cancer. Based on this knowledge, it makes sense to avoid consuming HCAs and PAHs as much as possible.
So now you’re probably wondering if grilled meat always contains substantial amounts of these carcinogens? No, it does not. Luckily, there are many proven methods to prevent their formation.
You can still cook tasty grilled meat and avoid consuming too much of these nasty substances. Later in this article, I will share my best tips on how to do it.
So why do some people say that grilled food makes you fat? I think there are 2 reasons for this.
First, grilled food is so tasty that we often eat more than enough. Secondly, there are a lot of grilled foods that contain a lot of calories. Good examples are sausages, marinated chicken wings, and ground meats with high-fat percentage.
While there might be some truth to these claims, it really depends on the choices you make when grilling and eating. Continue reading to find out how you can keep on grilling and still eat healthy at the same time.
Here is a short video that gives an excellent summary related to healthy grilling. It also includes a recipe for tasty marinated chicken breasts.
Tips for Healthier Grilling
There are many ways to cook tasty barbecue foods that are also healthy. The advice I’m giving here is based on scientific research and my own experience from years of grilling and smoking. Here are my 10 best tips for healthier grilling and barbecue!
1. Choose Lean Meat
I’m not saying that you should completely abandon those tasty pork chops and burgers. But you can decrease your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol by grilling more chicken and turkey breast or lean cuts of meat. You can also make a burger with ground chicken breast or low-fat ground beef.
As explained earlier, carcinogenic PAHs are mainly formed when grilling fatty foods. Thus, grilling lean meat can also help you with reducing the risk of cancer.
2. Grill Some Fish
I recommend that you also try grilling fish like salmon or sardines. They can be very delicious if you know how to cook them right. They also contain plenty of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
You can start with this tasty, easy and healthy grilled salmon recipe.
3. Avoid Processed Meat
An increasing amount of research links processed meat, such as sausages and bacon, to a higher risk of cancer. Many processed meats are also high in sodium and chemical preservatives.
Again, I’m not saying you have to leave these tasty products altogether. But I’m recommending not to eat them too often. And when you do, choose a high-quality product with mostly natural ingredients.
4. Don’t Overcook
The longer the cooking time of meat and the higher the temperature, the more HCAs and PAHs are formed. Charred and blackened meats have the highest amount of cancerous compounds. Besides, overcooked meat is not as juicy and doesn’t taste very good.
You can still give a nice sear to your steaks and then grill them for a few more minutes (depending on the thickness). Then remove them from the grill and wrap in a foil. This allows the temperature of the meat to get even while avoiding overcooking. It also helps with retaining the natural juiciness of the meat.
You can also cut your meat into smaller pieces and put them in skewers. This results in a shorter grilling time.
5. Use Marinades and Spices
Marinating your meat or fish can definitely make it tastier. It has other benefits as well. Marinades can prevent the formation of chemicals that cause cancer by as much as 92% to 99%.
A study from 2008 focused on finding out how marinades affect the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. 3 different kinds of marinades were used: Caribbean, Southwest, and herb based. Each marinade was applied 1 hour before grilling. The study shows that all 3 marinades had a significant impact on the HCA content of the beefsteaks. The decrease with the Caribbean marinade was 88%, with the herb marinade it was 72%, and with the Southwest style marinade 57%.
If you don’t want to always marinate your meat, you can also just rub some spices on the surface. For example, using black pepper can nearly eliminate the formation of HCAs.
However, this would require a relatively large amount of black pepper, which is too much for our taste buds. That’s why it’s better to make a mix of spices. You can use dried or fresh herbs, or whichever spices you like the most!
6. Eat the Right Amount
Grilled food is often so tasty that we tend to eat more than enough. Of course, if you are a long-distance runner or a tall and skinny basketball player, you need a lot of calories. But if you spend your days in an office and already have some extra pounds, there is no need to stuff yourself full every time.
Think about your daily energy consumption and eat accordingly. Try to fill about half of your plate with salad and grilled vegetables instead of only taking meat or calorie-dense sides like rice, pasta, or potato salad.
7. Grill More Veggies and Fruits
Add more vegetables to the grill. Zucchini, peppers, and sweet potatoes are some of my favorites. You can also try grilling fruits for a healthy and tasty dessert.
Now you might be thinking that grilled vegetables are not as tasty as meat. Check out this awesome video from Sam the Cooking Guy, and think again:
Even when you want to make some burgers, it’s not necessary to always use meat.
Have you ever tried making vegan burgers? If not, here is an excellent recipe for a tasty and nutritious grilled vegan burger. Give it a try!
8. Choose Healthy Side Dishes
Many store-bought side dishes, like potato salad or coleslaw, are full of saturated fat, added sugar, sodium, and preservatives. Switch to homemade side dishes so you can decide what ingredients to use. There many simple and tasty recipes that are also healthy.
9. Use Whole Grain Buns
When you are making burgers or hot dogs, choose whole-grain buns. They contain more fiber and important B vitamins, such as thiamine and folate.
Whole wheat also has a good amount of minerals, including zinc, iron, and magnesium. In addition, it has more protein and antioxidants compared to white bread.
10. Add Alcohol
Did I just recommend using alcohol to benefit your health? Yes, and I’m not joking! Adding alcoholic beverages to marinades can decrease the carcinogen levels of grilled or smoked meats considerably.
Marinating with only beer or red wine can already decrease the formation of certain carcinogens by up to 88%. Dark beers seem to be more efficient compared to lighter beers. Naturally, you would include other ingredients as well, which can further increase the effectiveness of the marinade.
Enjoy Tasty Grilled Food and Stay Healthy
Now we know what are the potential health risks related to grilled food. We have also covered many ways that help with avoiding these risks and making your barbecue more healthy. It just takes some effort but doesn’t make the food less tasty.
So it’s up to you now. Follow these tips and you can continue grilling and enjoying your life without worries!