Enjoy Barbeques with Balance in Mind

8 min read  |  May 17, 2024  | 

Life just doesn’t get much better than hoisting a cold drink, cutting into some juicy chicken, and munching sweet corn on the cob while hanging out with friends and family.

On the other hand, you may have heard that grilled foods can pose health risks. While that’s true, it’s no reason to swear off the delights of barbeques. 

“The problem comes down to carcinogens, substances that can cause cancer. These form as part of the process of grilling meat. Beef, pork, poultry and fish all contain certain chemicals — amino acids, sugars and creatine — that form these harmful substances when the food is hit by high heat,” says Diego Alejandro Garzon, a registered dietitian with the University of Miami Health System. 

“But even so, for most people, it’s fine to enjoy barbequed foods occasionally as part of a balanced diet,” he says. 

Grilling is hugely popular these days. It got a big boost in popularity during the pandemic when people wanted to socialize safely out of doors.  

Barbeques don’t pose a major risk.

“Grilling significantly boosts the taste of food. And it doesn’t pose the same health risks as smoking, excessive alcohol intake, or excessive sugar consumption,” says Camila Ludert, a registered dietitian with the University of Miami Health System. 

“If you were eating barbeque every meal every day, that could be a problem. But if you’re moderate about how often you eat grilled foods and about the quantities, it’s not going to be so harmful,” she says.

Both she and Alejandro enjoy the occasional barbeque themselves. 

Carcinogens found in grilled foods are also found elsewhere.

One group of carcinogens that forms in grilled meat is heterocyclic amines. These can also form when meat is cooked using other high-temperature methods, such as frying and broiling. 

Another group of carcinogens formed by barbequing is called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs are tremendously widespread. They occur in the air, water and soil. They are widespread in the environment. 

“All of us are exposed to PAHs every day in the air we breathe and the food we eat. Our metabolism is adapted to handle these frequent low-level exposures,” explains the Wisconsin Department of Health website. Cigarette smoke contains high levels of PAHs.

However, for most people, food is the main source of PAHs and heterocyclic amines.

Small adjustments will reduce the carcinogens.

“While eating barbequed meats exposes you to higher levels of these chemicals, there are easy ways to minimize the problem,” says Ludert.

By taking a few easy steps, you can not only reduce the use of “bad guy” chemicals but also produce meals that are tastier and more nourishing.  

Follow these tips from Ludert and Garzon:

Marinate for 20 minutes or more. 

This reduces the presence of heterocyclic amines by as much as 90 percent.  “You can use the time it takes to marinate your food to heat up the grill and organize some health side dishes. Marinating not only improves the healthfulness of foods, it also makes them more flavorful,” Ludert says. 

The basic elements in any marinade include oil, acid, and seasonings such as spices and salt. Beef, pork, and poultry can marinate for long periods, but be careful with delicate fish because the acid in the marinade can cause them to begin cooking without heat. 

Trim off visible fat.   

This cuts down on the amounts of PAHs that form in the food.

It also enhances the healthiness of foods in other important ways. As the World Health Organization’s website explains: “Excessive dietary fat intake has been linked to increased risk of obesity, heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. High consumption of saturated fats is widely considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”

Cook at fairly low temperatures.

 However, doing so will extend the cooking times. 

Rein in those leaping flames. 

Don’t put the meat on to cook until the flames have subsided. 

Raise the grill rack on your gas grill. 

This will reduce the amount of charring and, thus, the harmful chemicals. “You can use indirect cooking methods, placing the food to the side rather than just above the hottest areas,” says Garzon. 

Choose a gas grill rather than one that uses charcoal briquets.  

This way, you avoid using lighter fluid, which contains many toxic chemicals and sometimes gets into your food to the point where you can taste it.

If you do use charcoal, choose carefully.  

“While charcoal type doesn’t seem to make a big difference with red meats, salmon which is grilled with coconut shell charcoal has significantly fewer PAHs and other carcinogens than salmon grilled over wood charcoal,” says Garzon.

Enjoy lots of plant-based dishes.

Of course, people have been serving potato salad and cole slaw at barbeques for decades. Watermelon is a classic dessert at such gatherings.

But the options for plant food at a barbeque are really limitless. Plenty of healthy, plant-based side dishes can also be prepared on the grill, so they, like the animal foods, acquire that delicious smoky flavor. 

For vegetarians or vegans, grilled plant-based main dishes are quite possible. Grilled portobello mushrooms are often served as ‘steaks.  Cutting thick slices of a head of cauliflower also creates’ steaks’ you can deliciously grill. 

“When meat’s the main dish, you can round out the menu with plenty of grilled veggies and fresh salads or fruits. They are some good sources of carbohydrates and fiber, so they make your meals more balanced,” says Ludert. 

All sorts of veggies work on the grill. 

How about skewering chunks of onion, yellow squash, zucchini, and mushrooms for a side? Or hefty chunks of grilled sweet potatoes. Veggies you might not think of as fodder for the grill prove, in fact, delicious when grilled, says Raichlen, citing sturdy lettuces like Romaine and even skinny green beans (trapped in a wire cage).  

Barbequed vegetables are delicious, too, and since most of them contain little or no fat, they don’t form the same carcinogens when grilled at high heat. Charred veggies can produce some other harmful chemicals, though. So, the best bet is to cook veggies less aggressively, with indirect heat. That just means not placing the food right over the heat source but to the side of it. 

Take some simple precautions.

The number of patients coming into emergency rooms for injuries linked to grilling increased 18% between 2013 and 2023, according to researchers from the U.S. Product Safety Commission. Take these precautions to keep your barbeques happy occasions:

Of course, you want your barbecues to be as safe as possible. This means paying attention to your equipment.

Make sure your grill is free of harmful objects. Doctors have been reporting an increasing number of cases of people eating foods that contain bristles from the wire brushes used after cooking to clean the metal grill. Before you heat the grill, make sure it’s free of such dangerous objects. 

  • Periodically check for any leaks or breaks letting gas escape from a gas grill and repair them. 
  • Position the grill in a safe place, far from anything that could catch fire, such as structures, branches, or awnings. 
  • Station a responsible adult close to the grill at all times to keep kids far away from it. Research has shown that children under 5 are the ones most often burned at backyard barbeques. 
  • Dress right—with no droopy sleeves, apron strings or scarves that could catch fire. 
  • Clean the grill well after each use and empty the grease tray if necessary. Make sure no bristles from any cleaning brush remain on the grill.

Indoor grilling is an option.

Some Japanese and Korean restaurants offer tabletop grilling. Diners cook artfully arranged, small pieces of meat and vegetables over grills that are built right into the dining tables. 

“This can be fun, and it is a healthier practice because the grilling setups often have features to reduce flare-ups like drip trays,” says Ludert. This means that indoor grills create fewer carcinogens in meats than outdoor grills do. 

Barbequing is hugely popular.

According to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association, 70% of households in the U.S. owned at least one grill or smoker in 2023. This method of cooking is only growing in popularity.

 The group reports that more people are grilling throughout the day, for lunch and even breakfast, and winter grilling has become more popular in recent years.   

Having fun with friends is a healthy choice. 

“Grilling is a big part of social life in the U.S., and it’s very common at a lot of the holidays, like Memorial Day and July Fourth,” says Garzon.

Research has shown that people with bigger, more varied social networks tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives than people without such rich social ties. 

“To enjoy being with other people, sharing thoughts and feelings in good times and bad times is a huge plus for health. So go ahead–enjoy barbeques. Just don’t over-rely on grilled meat,” says Ludert. 

Milly Dawson is a contributor for UHealth’s news service.

Tags: Bar-b-q, grill safety, grilling, nutrition care in Miami, summer steaks

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