June 15, 2013 -- intro: Summer's almost here—and that means grilling season is, too. But with all of that deliciousness comes a safety warning: Grilling meat on unready charcoal may increase the risk of contaminating it with cancer-causing chemicals, according to a recent study published in the journal Food Chemistry.
Researchers from the University of Gaziantep in Turkey and the University of York in the United Kingdom extracted certain carcinogenic chemicals, called nitrosamines, from samples of grilled lamb and vegetables. The highest levels of nitrosamines were found when the meat was cooked on charcoals that weren't fully heated up and ready to go. Grilling the meat for a long time and grilling extra-fatty meat was also linked with an increase in nitrosamine levels.
That's not the only scary part of grilling, either: Compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when meat is exposed to high heat or flames, says Alice Bender, MS, RDN, nutrition communications manager at the American Institute for Cancer Research, who was not involved in the study. Both of these chemicals can cause damage to DNA in ways that may promote cancer.
That doesn't mean you just have to leave your grill in storage, though. With some smart tweaks to your cooking method, you can keep yourself considerably safer.
quicklist: 1category: Tips for Safe Summer Grillingtitle: Avoid Flare-Ups and Charringurl:text: Since high heat and flames cause those HCAs and PAHs to form, do what you can to steer clear of them: Cut off visible fat before you throw your meat on the grill, and once the coals are hot, move them to the side of the grill but leave your meat in the center.
"That way the heat will still be there," says Bender, "but even if something does drip down, it won't drip right onto the coals."
Flip your meat often, too, to avoid burning it, and keep it six inches away from the heat source, says Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, a senior nutritionist specializing in oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Another way to avoid charring: Cover your grill (or your meat) with aluminum foil, which eliminates direct contact with the flame.
quicklist: 2category: Tips for Safe Summer Grillingtitle: Use Marinadeurl:text: It doesn't just boost the yum factor.
"Marinating your meat for at least 30 minutes can reduce the numbers of those compounds—of HCAs—that are formed on the meat," says Bender. Studies have shown rosemary to be particularly effective. Lemon and vinegar marinades work well, too, says Kennedy. But don't lay it on too thick: "Be careful of thicker, sugary marinades," she says, "because they tend to burn more easily and promote charring."
quicklist: 3category: Tips for Safe Summer Grillingtitle: Pre-Cook Your Meaturl:text: Start cooking it in your oven, on the stovetop, or even in the microwave before it hits the grill, suggests Bender. That way you'll still get that delicious grilled flavor, but the meat will be exposed to potentially dangerous conditions for less time. (Just make sure you're moving the meat directly from the oven or microwave to the grill—you don't want it to sit around growing bacteria!)
quicklist: 3category: Tips for Safe Summer Grillingtitle: Get Creative About What You Grillurl:text: Leaner meat—like chicken or fish—means less fat leaking. And smaller pieces—like you'd put on kebabs—reduce grill time, says Kennedy. Even better: Try grilling veggies and fruit. Since they're animal protein-free, they don't pose that risk of forming HCAs and PAHs that meats do. And how amazing do grilled pineapples sound?
Speaking of which… Are you ready to get grilling—safely? Then try these perfect-for-summer recipes: