Barbequing That Won't Burn Your Own Buns

That sizzle you hear is the sound of summer happily hitting the grill. And while I refuse to mediate the permanent argument between hardwood charcoal purists and true gas-fueled believers, I will say this: When it comes to our health, what matters is not so much where we grill but how we grill when we get there.

We grill, of course, because our inner epicures demand it. Coddled by flame and caressed by smoke, foods blossom into deeply-flavored delicacies. Sadly, they also tend to acquire a toxin load that could reduce our health to ashes.

Cooking foods, especially meats, over high temperature flame produces two types of potential carcinogens: The first are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons produced when dripping fat burns in fire, a process whose resulting residues adhere to food and have been linked to breast cancer. The second barbeque buzz kill are substances known as heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which come into being when amino acids react with the creatine found in muscle tissue (i.e. meat) at temperatures above 350°. Studies suggest that HCAs may damage DNA and foster tumor development. [1]

But don't let these minor inconveniences give you the summertime blues. You can grill your feast and eat it, too. Here's how:

  • Start with a clean grill from which all suspicious char has been removed, and lightly oil it to prevent new char from sticking to food.
  • The longer foods cook and the more fat they drip, the less healthy they risk becoming. That makes quick-cooking fish, which is naturally low in amino acids, an ideal choice, especially if the skin is removed. If you opt for meat, choose lean cuts, and trim excess fat.
  • To reduce grilling time, don't grill partially frozen meat. Make sure it’s completely thawed.
  • Precook meat and simply finish it on the grill.
  • Barbeque smaller or thin-cut pieces of meat. Slicing chicken breasts in half, forgoing monster burgers, and splitting hot dogs and sausages reduce cooking times. Get a basket and grill chunks. Or go for kabobs.
  • Turn meat frequently to prevent high surface temperatures.
  • Use your entire grill—it has cool and hot spots and rotating foods around them can reduce toxin formation.
  • Set your grate as high above the flames as possible. And keep a squirt bottle of water handy to squelch flare-ups.
  • Use marinades and rubs. They put a shield between your food and toxin formation, and actively reduce HCAs. One study found that marinating steaks in varying mixtures of oil, vinegar, herbs and spices reduced potential carcinogens by 57-88%. [2] Another showed rubbing meat with rosemary, an antioxidant herb, could completely prevent HCAs. [3] Choose vinegar- or lemon-based marinades over those with sugars, which char easier.
  • Trim the charred bits off before eating. They're where a lot of the trouble lies.
  • Serve cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage (think cole slaw!) or Brussels sprouts, which studies show reduce DNA damage. [4, 5]

Techniques like these will go a long way toward a better barbeque today that won't cook your health tomorrow.

5. Additional resources used for the preparation of this article include; and

Photo: Michael Newman

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the Inkslinger

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!

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