Health Risks of Barbecue Grilling

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Tamar Genger MA, RD
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risks of grilling

Now that the weather is warming up we’re all excited to get out there and have some fun in the sun.  For me, it’s not summer without barbecue!  There is nothing I love more than fresh, hot off the grill meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and even garlic bread and focaccia.  In many ways, grilling can be a healthy way to cook your food, maybe even the healthiest since you typically don’t use added fat or oil, but there are some health risks you should be aware of before you light up.

The grilling process can generate chemicals that can be potentially hazardous to your health.  The main culprit is charring.  The flavorful, crispy black crust that forms on grilled food causes the chemical composition of the food to change.  Cooking meat at a high temperatures on a grill (even broiling or frying) can cause the amino acids, sugars and creatine to convert to Heterocyclic Amines (HCSAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) when fat drips onto hot coals, creating smoke that can be absorbed by the food.  These compounds have been associated with increased risk of some cancers.

I’m not suggesting you stop grilling or avoid cooking your food at high temperatures.  It is important to know about the apparent risks and minimize them.

So keep these tips in mind when enjoying your summertime barbecue.

  • Don’t eat the charred part of the meat.
  • Grill at lower temperatures.
  • Choose smaller cuts of meat to limit the cooking time.
  • Grill fish.  Beef and poultry produce more HCAs because of their high protein and longer grilling time.
  • Trim fat to reduce drips that cause flames and more smoke.
  • Marinate.  Some research suggests that the antioxidants in wine or beer used as a marinade will help reduce the HCAs.
  • Precook your meat in the microwave, slow cooker or oven and then throw on the grill for just a couple of minutes to get some flavor and grill lines.
  • Increase your vegetables.  The antioxidants in vegetables may help counteract the damaging effects of the grill.

Now that you are armed with these tips, go ahead and enjoy your grill.