Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Do lean meats, fruits and vegetables come to mind when you think of healthy grilling? It’s time to broaden your thinking.
Every time you ignite the burners, briquettes or wood chips on your grill, you’re exposing yourself and your food to some surprising health dangers. When muscle-y meats are charred by the flames of your grill, two potential carcinogens – cancer-causing compounds – called heterocyclic acids (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can form. And once these carcinogens appear, everything you cook on your grill can be exposed to them through dark smoke.
To limit your exposure to HCAs and PAHs while grilling, we’re sharing six tips that’ll ensure you’re always preparing healthy meals.
1. Use marinades with alcohol or acid
Marinades that contain alcohol or acidic juices can help limit the formation of those HCAs and PAHs. A 2012 research study suggests that even a simple lemon juice marinade has the potential to reduce PAH by as much as 70 percent. Additionally, a 2018 study found that marinades with organic acids reduced HCAs during grilling.
Liquids like wine and beer, vinegar and citrus juice, will all do the trick. You can try recipes like Grilled Lemon Chicken & Avocado with Shishito Peppers & Lemon Crema or Lemon Shrimp, which include just the right kind of citrus-forward marinades.
2. Add herbs into your marinades too
Like marinades made with alcohol or acids, herbaceous marinades can lower the amount of potential carcinogens that appear during the grilling process.
According to research conducted by the University of Arkansas and the Food Safety Consortium, marinating steaks in one particular type of herbs may reduce the formation of HCAs. In the study, researchers found that including herbs from the mint family – like basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage – in beef marinades dramatically reduced the amount of HCAs formed. It’s thought that the antioxidants present in these herbs help limit the formation of free radicals when you’re cooking beef at high temperatures.
Our Beer-Marinated Grilled Flank Steak combines both alcohol and the right kinds of herbs to limit carcinogen formation. You can also try non-beef recipes that highlight mint and other herbs in their marinades or prep, like Greek-Style Grilled Fish with Cucumber Mint Yogurt and Grilled Prawns on Rosemary Skewers.
3. Avoid flames and too-high temperatures
Did you know that cranking up the heat and grilling your food over big flames is a bad idea? While there are plenty of people who enjoy a nice char on their grilled meats and veggies, that charring can actually be quite unhealthy.
Both HCAs and PAHs are produced when you grill over very high heats. And when you burn, or char, foods of any kind you’ll wind up with high levels of these potential carcinogens. Instead, opt to grill over medium to low heat – carcinogens will be reduced at these temperatures, and you won’t have to worry about surprise flame flare-ups or your food burning.
Keep in mind that any time your grill starts sending up dark smoke, you’re increasing the potential exposure to HCAs and PAHs. By keeping the flames in check, you’ll lower your risk.
4. Grill indirectly instead of right on the grates
While half the fun of grilling is the flavor you get from cooking over a flame (and those classic grill marks), you can easily limit carcinogens. All you have to do is get your meat off the direct flames – which you can do with indirect cooking.
You can grill your meats and veggies on griddles to try and limit the amount of carcinogens created while cooking. Another option is to use your grill like an oven. Turn on one side and turn off the other, and keep your food on the cold side. Let the heat cook your food without exposure to the flames themselves.
5. Opt for thin cuts of meat, not thick
Thicker cuts of meat take longer to cook thoroughly through. So, when you’re working with cuts of beef or pork that stand half an inch thick (or even thicker!) like sizable chops or whole roasts, you’re going to keep that meat exposed to potential HCAs and PAHs for quite a while.
Instead, try to choose thinner cuts to grill. The longer meat sits over the flames of the grill, the greater your risk of unhealthy additions. Thinner cuts will cook faster and slash the time you spend over the grill and some of your risk for carcinogens.
The same goes for veggies and fruit. Think thinner rather than thick. If your food is so thin or small that it might slip through your grill grates, use a basket or griddle instead.
6. Clean up after every grilling session
Lastly, after you shut off the flames and pull your food off the grill, it’s important to properly clean up.
Letting leftover bits of food and grease sit on your grill is surprisingly dangerous. All of that residue can contain carcinogens – after all, it’s been exposed to direct flames and high heat, just like anything else you’ve cooked. And the more scorched those leftover bits are, the more highly concentrated the carcinogens are. If you don’t remove them, they’ll continue to get scorched and can transfer onto your next meal, infusing it with dangerous particles.
Additionally, leaving behind food fats, grease and residues can breed harmful bacteria. If that’s left to thrive, every time you cook on your grill you’ll pick up potentially dangerous bacteria that can cause illnesses. Instead, clean your grill after every use to keep your next meals as healthy as possible.
To perfect your healthy grilling habits and find new inspiration, keep reading: