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Is Grilling Bad for Your Health?

meat on a barbecue

When it’s too hot to turn on the kitchen stove, it can only mean one thing: It’s grilling season. But before heading outdoors to prepare every meal, we may want to consider some hamburger health hazards. Cooking meat at high temperatures—like grilling, or even roasting and frying—can cause chemical reactions that release some nasty toxins in the air (and our bodies). But before opting for a raw food diet out of pure fear, there are some ways to keep on grilling while staying out of harm’s way.

You're Grilling Me—The Need-to-Know

Throwing a sausage on the grill can cause some serious chemical reactions. The biggest worry is that many of the chemicals created have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. In fact, one large study on over 3,000 women found those who consumed a large amount of grilled meat over the course of a year had a 47 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer. In order to learn more about what's actually causing these health risks, we examined the main chemical reactions that occur when meat meets grill, and what the potentially harmful products of those reactions can do.

  • AGEs: Fat plus protein plus heat may equal trouble. Cooking at high heat can produce a chemical reaction between the fat and protein in meat, creating toxins called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. These toxins are linked to the imbalance of antioxidants in the body (aka oxidant stress), along with inflammation, which can lead to an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • PAHs: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are a group of over 100 different chemicals found in the smoke emitted from cooking meat on a charcoal grill. PAHs are classified as carcinogens and have been linked to an increased risk of lung and bladder cancer.
  • HCAs: Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are carcinogenic chemicals produced when muscle meats (i.e., beef, pork, chicken, fish) are fired up on the grill. They’re formed when amino acids (found in protein) and creatine (found in muscle) react at temps above 300 degrees F. Studies have found a connection between HCAs and prostate, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer in adults.

Top Chef—Your Action Plan

Unlike meat, veggies don't create carcinogens when cooked to a crisp. Still, there’s no need to become a vegetarian or toss the grill completely. Try these safer ways to cook up a storm and stay safe in the process:

  • Go old school. Got spare ribs (and spare time?). Traditional BBQ methods are a safer route to take, since it involves slow cooking of meats over indirect heat.
  • Marinate wisely. Scientists have found marinades can make grilling safer by reducing the amount of carcinogenic compounds released in the air. (It’s still unclear why exactly they help.) Try soaking some chicken breasts in one of these healthier options.
  • Nuke it. Pre-cooking meat in a microwave will kick-start the cooking process and lead to less time on the grill. Cooking meat in the micro for two minutes can reduce HCA content up to 95 percent
  • Get a trim. When fat drips onto an open flame, flare-ups can spread nasty chemicals onto the meat. So remove the skin from chicken, and skip fatty meats like sausage and ribs. When food is burned, these chemicals stack up, so remove all charred or burned bits before eating, too. Flipping meat frequently at a lower temperature will also help avoid charring.
  • Use a thermometer. To prevent cooking at temps too high, use a thermometer to regulate how hot the grill gets. Steak should be cooked to 145 degrees F, hamburgers at 160 degrees, and chicken at 165 degrees. (To measure, place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, avoiding the bone, fat, and gristle.)
  • Clean the grill. Make sure the grill is nice and clean to avoid cooking on leftover grease and pieces of char. But heads up—cleaning with metal bristles could leave a few pieces of wire behind (to be accidently eaten later on!). The solution? Clean off the grill with a non-wire brush instead.
  • Color it up. Try eating grilled meats with cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli). These superfoods contain fancy anti-inflammatory nutrients called isothiocyanates that change the way the body breaks down dangerous grilling chemicals, making the meat safer.
  • Don’t go well-done. Meat that’s overcooked is associated with no-good chemicals and the health problems that can follow. So follow the recommended temps for safe meat, but make sure not to eat meat that’s too undercooked or raw either.
  • Leave the meat! The easiest solution to stay away from harmful chemicals is to say no thanks to meat. Luckily, there are many meat-free options that are great on the grill. (Ice cream, anyone?)

The Takeaway

Grilling meat at high temperatures can release harmful chemicals into the air and our bodies. Luckily, there are ways to prepare meat safely without leaving the grill behind.

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