Grilling on the BBQ is a summertime must. Who doesn’t love a juicy kebab or burger that’s fresh off the grill? While grilling adds incredible flavour and is an easy cooking method, studies have shown that it may increase the risk of cancer. Here’s how: when meat that’s rich in muscle (think: burgers and steaks) is grilled or pan-fried above 300°F or is hit by an open flame, it forms heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals may mutate DNA, leading to possible cancer risk. While getting that great char on your burger may add flavour, it also adds possible carcinogens into your meal, which definitely puts a damper on summertime grilling; but, fear not, because we have must-know tips for grilling safely this BBQ season!
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1. Marinade, Marinade, Marinade
Several studies have found that marinating meat before grilling greatly decreases its carcinogenicity. For example, marinating chicken in a combination of cider vinegar, mustard, lemon juice, salt and even red wine significantly reduced the HCAs in grilled chicken. Marinating pork in beer resulted in the same significant reduction in HCAs. So, marinate your meat before grilling, but minimize the sugars and oils, which can actually increase HCAs and PAHs. If you’re marinade is laden with sugars and oils, reserve it for the end of the grilling period.
2. Rosemary is Your Friend
That aromatic, woodsy spice may be your new best friend when it comes to grilling. Studies have found that the compounds in rosemary, known as rosmarinic acid, carnosol and carnosic acid, can block HCAs from forming during grilling. You can use rosemary dried or fresh in marinades, or simply rub the extract on the surface of your meat before grilling to reap the benefits. Other studies found that combining antioxidant-rich herbs (like oregano, thyme, basil, mint and parsley) together in marinades were also effective at reducing HCAs.
3. Pass the Pepper, Please
You may want to add more than a pinch of pepper when it comes to grilling your favourite meat this summer. A study found that mixing 1 gram of pepper with 100 grams of ground beef worked well at inhibiting HCAs, but it was unpalatable, so researchers encourage cooks to load up on pepper and other flavourful herbs to reduce HCAs and give it a pleasing taste. Meats only need to be seasoned a few hours before grilling (seasoning for too long can have the opposite effect, as the antioxidants can decompose).
4. Smother in Garlic and Onion
Studies have indicated that adding garlic and onion to meat before grilling showed a strong reduction in HCAs. It’s best when you combine garlic and onion together, as they can target different HCAs and reduce them. Another study found that adding freshly cut onion to a beef patty that’s fried at 445°F for 8 minutes per side greatly inhibited HCAs. The point is, no matter the form (fresh, powdered, granulated) just make sure you add this allium duo to your meats prior to grilling.
5. Clean Your Grill
Before using your BBQ, make sure all of the grates are clean, and if they’re not, get in there with a brush and scrub! When there’s leftover burnt bits on the grates, it’s likely to drip down when the heat turns up, igniting a big flame. When meats are in direct contact with fire, that’s when PAHs form on their surface. A really easy way to reduce PAHs is to thoroughly clean your grill before and after use.
Related: The Correct (And Simple) Way to Clean Your BBQ: A Step-by-Step Guide
6. Go Lean
HCAs and PAHs are most likely to form at incredibly high temperatures, and over longer cooking periods. Choosing leaner cuts, like flank steak, can help reduce the carcinogens because the cook time is quicker, so it’s not exposed to direct heat for that long. If you are using a fattier cut, don’t cook to the point where it’s completely charred or very, very well done. Instead, take it off the BBQ before it gets to that point. You can also slice your meat into smaller pieces so it cooks faster. Stay away from grilling processed meats like sausages and hot dogs that have nitrates, which are precursors to carcinogenic compounds.
7. Go for the Veg (or Fish)
When veggies and fruits are grilled over a flame, HCAs don’t form, mainly because produce doesn’t have the same muscle and protein content that meat does. For this reason, switch up some grilling habits and add lots of colourful veggies to your BBQ menu. You can also take a break from red meat, instead opting for fish and seafood, which cooks much quicker and doesn’t require being on the grill for too long, reducing overall HCA and PAH levels.
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8. Flip It Real Good
Studies have found that continuously flipping your meat on the grill can minimize the formation of carcinogens. As you flip, the surface of the meat is moving around, so it won’t get as charred or burned, which helps to reduce both HCAs and PAHs.
9. Layer with Foil
Since many carcinogens are formed when fat drips down and flames flare up, you can always line your grill with foil and puncture little holes for the drippings to glide down. This helps to prevent your meat from being in direct contact with an open flame.
Get the recipe for Foil-Pack Grilled Sweet-and-Spicy Chicken Wings
10. Master the Gas
Gas grills are the safest when it comes to summer grilling. You can easily control the temperature and place meat away from the direct flame. Your meat can still cook in the heat of the enclosed BBQ, but it doesn’t necessarily need to come into contact with flames. If there are fiery flare ups, you can keep a spray bottle of water close by to help minimize. You can also pre-cook meats in the oven to limit the time they have on the grill.