The Hidden Dangers of Grilling

Family having a barbecue party

Barbecuing is one of the true joys of summertime. Who hasn’t enjoyed good company, perfect weather and good food made over hot coals or a gas fire – at home, in a park, on a beach or a campsite? According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, more than 80% of all U.S. households own a grill, with almost half of the people grilling at least 1-2 times per week during summer months . Grilling is fun, affordable, makes food taste good and brings together friends and family. In the midst of good times, however, you might not be thinking about some very real health risks that you are exposing yourself to at the barbecue. Luckily, there are ways you can showcase master grilling skills and also reduce health risks for you and your guests.

Read on to find out four grilling health threats and some easy ways to reduce them in your own backyard.

Grilling Danger #1: Char
While char marks in grilled meat look appealing and give a tasty flavor, the char is laden with cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that form when meat and high heat are combined to create a blackened crust. The more char that’s created, the more carcinogens result that coat your food. High levels of HCAs can cause cancer in laboratory animals exposed to them, and epidemiological studies show that eating charred meats may be associated with an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Grilling Danger #2: Smoke
Barbecue smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), toxic chemicals that can damage your lungs. As meat cooks, drippings of fat hit the coals and create PAHs, which waft into the air. If you are a grill chef who loves to stand over the barbeque, you are inhaling these toxins. The smoky smell on your clothes and in your hair is also coating the inside of your lungs. The more your grill smokes, the more PAH is generated. The toxins are absorbed along with that delicious smoky flavor right into your food.

Grilling Danger #3: Harmful byproducts
When food is cooked at very high temperatures, a chemical chain reaction can occur that creates inflammatory products called advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs) that are harmful to your cells and associated with cellular stress and aging. As suggested by the name ‘end product,’ your body cannot digest them or get rid of them easily. Over time, AGEs accumulate in your organs and cause damage. Where do you find AGEs in the barbeque? In the char.

How to avoid the dangers
• Use marinades and rubs
Coating the meat in herbs with a rub containing rosemary, thyme, pepper or smothering with thick marinades not only adds delicious flavor but can also help reduce the creation of carcinogens by grilling by up to 96%. A tasty marinade also reduces dripping fat and smoke and helps prevent char, thereby lowering the amount of all 3 threats – HCAs, PAH, and AGEs – in your food. Take home message: Boosting flavor can reduce risk.

• Pre-cook your meat
As easy way to decrease toxins created by the barbecuing is to pre-cook your meat halfway over low heat in a skillet or the oven before putting them on the grill. Precooking removes some of the fat that can drip and smoke, and it greatly reduces the amount of time your meat sits on the grill being exposed to toxins. Less time at high heat also means fewer AGEs are created in your meat. Extra bonus: with precooking, you can barbeque the food much faster to feed the hungry troops.

• Reduce drippings
Using a simple piece of aluminum foil as a protective barrier under the meat helps prevent drippings from smoking, thereby reducing the amount of PAH blowing into your food and your lungs. Keeping drippings in the foil can also help to keep your food moist. Another great way to reduce drippings is to choose leaner cuts of meat and trim off any excess fat before you put them on the grill.

• Grill veggies
Grilled vegetables do not contain the HCA carcinogens even when charred. Vegetable kabobs made with peppers, cherry tomatoes and red onions are great on the grill, and offer many healthy nutrients and cancer fighting substances you can’t get from a steak or chicken breast.

Prevent Foodborne Illness
Undercooked meat contaminated with bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella is a real health problem, and nothing ruins a barbecue like food poisoning. Even when meat is properly cooked, it’s possible to cross contaminate cooked meat by touching it with fingers or tongs that have been in contact with bacteria from a nearby platter of uncooked meat. Luckily, foodborne illness is often avoidable by using careful food hygiene.

• Cook to Temperature
Use an inexpensive cooking thermometer to make sure the meat is adequately cooked. The minimum internal temperature for poultry (chicken breast, drumsticks) is 165° F; for ground meat (hamburger) is about 160° F; and for cuts of beef (steak) is 145 degrees). Keep in mind that meat should always be kept in the refrigerator while thawing or marinating to prevent bacteria from growing.

• Wash your Hands
When you touch a piece of raw meat, or a surface that has been in contact with raw meat, wash your hands with soap and water. Not just a momentary spray under the faucet, but an honest wash, just like you would in a restroom. This will help prevent cross contamination. Be careful about using knives and tongs to handle both the raw and cooked meats. Have separate utensils and tools for the raw, and don’t confuse them. Bonus tip: While preparing multiple dishes, use different colored cutting boards when making preparing meats and vegetables. Use one color for cutting raw meat and another color for cutting produce. Make it easy on yourself to prevent cross-contamination.

So, now that you know how to barbeque with your health in mind, go ahead and fire up your grill. Enjoy one of summer’s true pleasures. And stay healthy.