There’s nothing quite like the smell of the grill filling the summer air. Grilling can bring tons of flavor to that luscious turkey burger or juicy salmon steak, and some fitness experts say it’s a lean way to cook as grillers can literally watch saturated fats ooze out of what’s being cooked.
With these benefits, however, comes a serious downside risk, as grilling (and pan frying) muscle meat such as beef, pork, fish or poultry over an open flame can cause the chemicals heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to form. These chemicals have been found to be mutagenic, meaning they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer, says the National Cancer Institute.
“Colon cancer is the primary cancer that researchers have been studying,” says Paul Strickland, PhD, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Studies suggest that ingested PAHs can cause GI tract cancers, while inhaled PAHs are associated with lung cancer, Strickland says.
“Potentially if the cook is standing over a grill, or any burning process, inhaling particulate matter and smoke from that has potential risk,” Strickland says. “But we’re talking about not grilling once a week or once a month in your backyard. We’re talking about someone who would be grilling on a daily basis at a restaurant or even grilling outdoors.”
Don’t put down your grilling tongs and basting brushes just yet. There are ways to stave off those nasty chemicals, and signs to alert you to their possible presence. A good indicator of whether you’re forming PAHs is whether the food, be it meat or vegetables, is charred and blackened, Strickland says. Charred foods also indicate that HCAs are present, but they are formed only in meats because those chemicals are derived from the proteins in animal tissue.
“The risk question is difficult to answer,” Strickland says. “How much charring is there? How much did you eat? If it was just a few lines, that suggests there wasn’t a whole lot of charring. If it’s food that is completely blackened on one side, I would say that would have a lot more risk associated with it.”
To minimize the risk of charring, Strickland and other health advocates recommend keeping food on the grill for as short a time as possible and out of the path of direct flame and high heat. And while that combination of strategies may sound like a recipe for yielding something resembling steak tartare (raw beef), it doesn’t have to be.
For instance, you can start cooking food using another heat source before putting it briefly on the grill. Boiling and steaming your food, or cooking it in the oven or sous vide first, then finishing it on the grill will provide that nice BBQ flavor while minimizing the health risk.
Most grills provide a gauge for adjusting temperatures at low, medium and high—relatively vague terms—but some recent products are using digital technology to help grillers avoid flare-ups by maintaining a more precise temperature. Rec Tec grills, for example, use a processor that controls how much fuel—in this case wood pellets—is delivered to a fire pot; a precise temperature can be maintained by speeding up or slowing down the rate at which fuel is going into the fire.
Digital technology is similarly giving meat thermometers a new spin. Oregon Scientific’s Grill-Right Bluetooth BBQ Thermometer, for instance, pairs with any Bluetooth-enabled device so grillers can monitor the progress of their meat from afar.
A number of tools can help grillers keep their food away from a direct flame. A device called a GrillGrate, interlocking panels that form a new grill surface, helps block flare-ups so food doesn’t get burned or charred. Setting food atop planks made of cedar and other woods is also a popular method of adding flavor while keeping flames at bay; remember to soak the wood for at least one hour so it doesn’t burn. While food needs to have a direct flame on it to deposit HCAs, Strickland cautions that smoked foods—that is, foods cooked via indirect heat—can have PAHs deposited on their surface from the smoke.
Even if all methods of keeping your food from charring fail, all is not lost. “If you accidentally burn the meat,” Strickland says, “you trim off the black part.”