Let’s start with acknowledging the fact that high-heat grilling MAY increase certain health risks. In fact, all high-heat, long-lasting methods of cooking may pose some level of risk due to the compounds that are formed when foods are cooked this way. However, there are definitely a few important things to keep in mind before you hang up the “Trust Me, I’m the Chef” hat.
The background science and research: High-fat, high-protein foods form a few potentially dangerous compounds when exposed to high heat for a long period of time. These include:
- AGEs (Advanced Glycation End Products) are produced when sugars present in foods react with other compounds. Blood levels of AGEs have been connected loosely to the presence of Type 2 Diabetes. However, there is definitely not enough evidence about how AGEs directly impact disease risk to be able to set a threshold of safety (i.e. a certain amount of AGEs in foods or in the blood = a specific health risk).
- HCAs and PAHs (Heterocyclic Amines and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) are compounds formed from the heating of fats and proteins, as well as from the combustion (burning) of materials related to grilling. These compounds can cause changes in DNA, which may increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
What to do now: Despite the fact that grilling increases the formation of not-so-nice compounds, the level of this formation can very easily be altered with the adoption of a few key steps.
- Switch up what you’re grilling. Meats that contain less fat will not be as prone to forming concerning compounds, so that’s a great place to start. To go a step further, flex your grilling muscles on fruits and veggies, which form almost no concerning compounds when grilled since they contain little protein and fat. Plus- they are charged up with antioxidants, which counteract the negative impacts of HCAs and PAHs.
- Use a marinade; and use it correctly. Food science studies have shown that marinating meats in an acidic liquid (i.e. citrus, vinegar) for 60 minutes dramatically reduces the formation of potentially carcinogenic compounds. If fat is used in the marinade, make sure to fully drain, since fat dripping onto direct flame causes PAH formation.
- Monitor temperature and time to avoid charring. The higher the heat and the longer the cooking time, the more likely it is that potentially carcinogenic compounds will be formed. Avoid deep charring and do whatever you can to keep the food from touching the actual flame.
- Invite herbs to the BBQ. Using fresh herbs, especially rosemary, in grilling can prevent the formation of HCAs. Leverage the protective antioxidant qualities of fresh herbs, keeping in mind that you’ll want to gravitate towards the heartier varieties that can handle the heat: rosemary, thyme, and fennel.
- Build your flame with safer grilling in mind. When researchers have looked at the levels of PAHs in grilled foods, those cooked with charcoal- especially when lighter fluid was used- had the highest levels. Ideally, leverage electric heat or plain charcoal or wood to minimize the formation of PAHs.
Grilling can bring unparalleled flavor to a wide range of foods that provide key nutrients like vitamin B12, essential amino acids, iron, and antioxidant vitamins. Just like you may decide to add a splash of pure sugar to your coffee or a pat of butter to your toast, a healthy diet is all about balancing flavors you love with healthy choices.
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.