Monday Medical: Healthy grilling season starts now
May 31, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Editor's Note: This column has been updated since its original publication on June 9, 2009.
Although I know of several die-hard locals here in Steamboat Springs who grill year-round, even battling cold, wind and snow, most of us haul out our barbecue grill for outdoor cooking in the summer.
The intense heat of grilling brings out food's natural flavors so there is no need to add extra calories with fats or oils. This makes grilling a healthy cooking option. On the other hand, cooking at high heat also can char, burn or blacken meats, and this can be unhealthy.
What makes grilled foods unhealthy? The process of grilling foods produces carcinogens, which are cancer-causing compounds. HCAs, or Heterocyclic Amines, are chemicals produced when red meat, poultry or fish is cooked at high temperatures.
PAHs are Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons that are produced when fat drips from the meat into the flames of the grill and produces smoke. The PAH-filled smoke coats the food, contaminating it. PAHs also are created when flames touch the meat itself, charring or blackening it.
Pam Wooster, registered dietitian at Yampa Valley Medical Center, has some cautionary advice.
Recommended Stories For You
"Be careful when grilling because research has found that using this high-heat method of cooking can increase the risk for developing certain cancers," she said. "Often the meats we are grilling, such as high-fat or highly processed meats such as hot dogs or sausages, contain nitrosamines that are linked to cancer.
"Choose leaner meats to grill such as beef, fish, game and poultry. You can even cook crab legs on the grill," Wooster said.
Selecting smaller cuts of meat, poultry or fish and pre-cooking meats will cut down on total grilling time. Removing skin from poultry and trimming any visible fat may reduce grill flare-ups and charring.
Marinating meat can be a healthy option. Use marinades with little or no sugar, as sugary sauces burn easily. Even commercial marinades offer spices and herbs containing antioxidants that help decrease HCAs. In particular, marinades or meat rubs containing rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil and parsley seem to have the best protection.
Wooster recommends grilling at lower temperatures and using a meat thermometer to ensure that meat is completely cooked.
"Choose a medium heat where you can 'carefully' hold your hand at grill height for four seconds without it feeling too intensely hot," she said.
Here are a few precautions to minimize the amount of carcinogens that are consumed:
■ Place aluminum foil between your meat and the grill to prevent charring.
■ Cook food in the center of the grill and move coals to the side to prevent fat and juices from dripping on them.
■ Cut charred, blackened or burned pieces off of meat before eating.
■ Grill fish and vegetables instead of red meat and poultry. Vegetables will not produce HCAs. Because fish typically is lower in fat, it requires less time to grill, further reducing the exposure to carcinogens.
■ Keep a spray bottle of water close by to control flare-ups.
■ Add sauces at the end of grilling time to prevent burning.
Another important tip is to avoid cross-contamination. Use one plate and spatula to carry raw food out to the grill and use another clean plate and spatula for the cooked food.
So, enjoy the upcoming summer grilling season. Stick to a few basic healthy tips: keep your grill clean, avoid charring meats, choose healthy meats and cook meats at the right temperature.
Eating moderate amounts of grilled meats cooked to a safe temperature and not charred does not pose a big health problem.
Get creative by adding vegetables and fruits for a healthy variety. Experiment with meat rubs and marinades that are a simple, healthy way to ensure flavorful, juicy results without adding much fat or many calories.
Lisa A. Bankard is director of community education and wellness at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.