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Guidance on healthy grilling 101

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on May 22, 2019

There’s nothing quite like firing up the grill distinguishing summer from all other seasons.  The sounds, smells and tantalizing taste of barbequed meat are one of a kind.  However, before you get to grilling nonstop, there can be some health drawbacks to this mainstream Americana ritual.  Should you forego grilling completely? Fortunately you do not. Instead, learn how to grill as healthy and safely as possible while still enjoying the flavorful aromas activating your taste buds.

Potential downsides of grilling and how to grill healthier

Research has suggested a link between grilled meat, poultry, and fish and the possible development of cancer.  There are a couple of caveats in regards to grilling that everyone needs to consider:

  1. Grilling means many of us will end up eating very high-fat meats and sausages. This means excess calories, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol that do not promote a healthy way of eating.  Choose leaner cuts of meat keeping the portion sizes reasonable around 3-6 ounces.
  2. There’s the risk of consuming two potentially cancer-causing compounds. One is called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s). PAHs form when fat from the meat drips onto the hot coals or grill element.  They are then deposited onto the food due to flare-ups from the flames and rising smoke.  Charred pieces on meat can contain PAHs.

The second potentially cancer-causing compound is heterocyclic amines (HCAs) which are produced when red meat, poultry, and fish meet high-heat cooking like grilling and broiling.

Both PAHs and HCAs have been shown to cause tumors in animals and possibly increase the risk of cancers of the breast, colon, stomach, and prostate in humans.

By making a few smart grilling modifications reducing the formation of PAHs and HCAs, barbecued meats can still be enjoyed. Here’s how:

  • Marinate meats before grilling

Researchers at Kansas State University used three different mixtures of oil, vinegar, and herbs and spices to marinate steaks.  Marinated steaks carcinogens were reduced by 57 to 87 percent compared to unmarinated steaks.  Scientists believe that the marinade ingredients themselves seem to prevent HCA formation along with creating a protective barrier between the meat’s proteins and the heat of the grill.  Typical marinade ingredients include vinegar, citrus juice, herbs, spices and oils such as olive oil that appear to contribute to the prevention of HCA formation.  About a half cup of marinade is needed for every pound of meat.  Total immersion is not necessary but the meat should be turned occasionally so that all surfaces are in contact with the marinade long enough to be beneficial.

  • Trim the fat

When you trim fat from meat before grilling, there will be less fat dripping onto the flames.  That means fewer flare-ups; flare-ups can contain PACs that get deposited onto the food through flare-ups and smoke.

  • Shorten grill time

The less time spent on the grill, the less exposure to smoke and flames.  Small meat portions like kebobs require a shorter cooking time.  Fish will cook much faster than beef or chicken.  Pre-cooking meats in a microwave for two to five minutes can significantly help eliminate 90 percent of HCAs

  • Avoid processed meats

Just about everybody loves to eat processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, or bratwursts.  Unfortunately, cancer-causing substances are formed when these meats are preserved by smoking, curing, salting or by the addition of preservatives.  In addition, eating processed meats can do damage to your DNA, increasing your risk of colorectal cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.  It’s best to limit your intake of these meats to a bare minimum or avoid them altogether.

  • Ban burnt or charred meat, poultry, and fish

For some individuals, burnt or charred pieces are their favorite part of grilled meats.  But before biting into those crunchy burnt pieces, consider they are caused by cooking meat at a high temperature resulting in PAHs and HCAs to form, increasing the risk of pancreatic, colon, or stomach cancers.  The Kansas Beef Council recommends grilling at medium heat since high heat can overcook or char the meat.  If using a charcoal grill, spread the coals in a single layer.  When the coals are no longer flaming and are ash-colored, it should be at medium heat.  If using a gas grill, check the owner’s manual for specific information on medium heat as gas grills can vary quite a bit.  Always remove burnt or charred pieces from food.

  • Consider grilling fruits and veggies instead

Grilled fruits and veggies are a terrific alternative to traditional methods of cooking produce and they produce no HCAs.  It’s fast, easy and a nice change of pace from how you normally eat produce.  Plant-based foods are associated with lower risks of cancer and if you normally avoid produce, this can be one way of getting the recommended number of servings.  Try out these recipe ideas for grilling your favorite veggies.

  • Keep your grill gleaming

A clean grill is a happy grill and this means you need to clean the grill both before and after using it.  Scrubbing the grill to a shiny gleam reduces the buildup of carcinogens and helps the food taste much better too.  Not cleaning the grill will mean you run the risk of transferring leftover chemicals onto food that next time you barbeque.

Get grilling confidently

Grilling is an enjoyable pastime and as long as it’s done confidently and safely without compromising your health, it can be done on a regular basis.  Follow the tips in this article and you can be a master chef in your backyard of grilling a variety of meat, poultry, fish and don’t forget fruits and veggies.  For more information on grilling and recipes, visit the Texas Beef Council and check out one sample of many marinade recipes found at their website.

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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