A nutritionist shares her tips and tricks for grilling healthier meals this summer.

Gathering around the grill with friends is one of the reasons I love summer. Cooking over open flames gives simply seasoned foods a unique flavor—not to mention that cooking dinner outside with a cold drink is a lot more fun that staying in the kitchen!

But for the past few years, I’ve paused a few times before lighting a fire. Could eating foods cooked over an open-flame significantly increase my family’s health risks? I knew I needed to do some more research—truthfully, I was a little scared for what I might learn—but I put aside my apprehension aside and starting digging into to the latest data on the health effects of eating grilled food.

What’s Wrong with Grilling?

Even though there’s little research looking specifically at the effects from grilling—and most research to-date examines all high-temp cooking methods (roasting, broiling, frying and grilling) as a group—there’s enough circumstantial data to suggest we shouldn’t just dismiss the potential for negative health effects.

The concerns stem from these research findings:

  • AGEs (advanced glycation end products) are compounds that can occur naturally but also form in foods during cooking, particularly when high-heat cooking methods are used. Higher intakes of AGEs are associated with increased inflammation and development or progression of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
  • Specific compounds know as HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are formed when animal proteins like beef, chicken, pork or fish are cooked, and they dramatically increase in number as temperature and cooking time increases. When given in large doses, these appear to be carcinogenic in animals, but research hasn’t identified a direct link to cancer in humans.
  • Based on food frequency surveys, individuals who report higher consumption of well-done or barbecued meats are at a higher risk for developing certain cancers such as colon, pancreatic, and bladder.

To Grill or Not to Grill?

These research findings can be pretty alarming, but I think it’s important to look at the whole picture—including the good, bad, and unknown.

Are potential health threats related more to the type of food, the cooking method, or a combination of the two? Should our focus be to cut back on grilling as a cooking method? Or is it more important to cut back on certain animal proteins, like processed meats?

These unknowns make it hard to judge if or how grilling compares to other dangers in our food system—like pesticides, artificial colorings, and added sugars.

What does all this mean for those summer cookouts? This is up to the individual, but I think the key is being aware. And while research has suggested concerns, it’s also provided a lot of insight about how to reduce potential health risks when grilling. So while I’m not planning on packing up my grill just yet, I do plan to follow more of these tips to minimize risks and reduce my grilling frequency during the week.

Tips to Minimize Grilling Risks

Marinate Your Food

When red meat was allowed to sit in an acidic marinade for 60 minutes, the number of AGEs produced during cooking was almost half that compared to the same meat that wasn’t marinated. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AIRC) recommends allowing protein to sit for 30 minutes in a marinade made with an acid—like vinegar or lemon juice.

Use Herbs

One research study found that compounds in rosemary significantly reduced HCA production when beef was cooked. This is attributed to protective, antioxidant effects that fragrant compounds in herbs, so consider adding a little fresh rosemary, oregano, sage, or thyme.

Rethink Your Plate

Decrease your meat serving by throwing extra vegetables on the grill or adding an extra veggie side dish to the menu. Foods higher in protein and fat produce the highest amount of AGEs and HCAs, but foods higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat (like vegetables) produce some of the lowest numbers. Bonus? The antioxidants and phytochemicals in produce provide additional protection from harmful compounds.

Grill Quickly

Both cooking method and cooking time impact the formation of harmful chemicals, so the AIRC suggests that cooking time be kept short when using a high-heat method like grilling. You can do this by  either opting for a quick-cooking protein like fish or cutting meat into smaller pieces to make kebabs. Or, throw meat that needs to cook longer on the grill for just a few minutes to get some flavor and a few grill marks. Then remove, and finish it off on a lower temp in the oven.

Choose Proteins Wisely

Processed meats such as hotdogs, sausages, ham, and bacon—no matter how they’re cooked—are associated with an increased risk of cancer and heart disease, so adding harmful HCAs and PAHs by grilling those cured, preserved, or smoked meats multiplies the potential for damage. Opt for chicken, pork, or fish when grilling instead. Lean beef, lamb, and other red meats are okay on occasion, but try to skip processed meats altogether.

Watch Smoke and Flames

The more food can avoid direct contact with flames, the better, so let initial flames settle before cooking or use a grill pan. PAHs are created when fat and juice drip from the food being cooked to create smoke which then sticks to the food. Reduce PAH production by choosing leaner proteins and trimming excess fat before cooking.   

Avoid Charring

Cooking protein foods until well-done increases time for HCAs to form, but also increases browning on the outside and risk of charring, both of which increase PAH production. Let flames die down before adding meat to the grill, and consider one of the quicker cooking options given above. If food becomes charred, cut off and discard that portion.

Skip the Lighter Fluid

A gas grill is easy to start, but charcoal adds a little extra flavor – just make sure it’s not also adding extra chemicals by using lighter fluid (this include quick-start briquettes which are presoaked). Instead, make a fire the old-fashioned way with coal and a little newspaper. A charcoal chimney to sit in your grill makes this process a snap and is a minimal investment.