Between the months of May and September, it’s difficult to flip through any food or cooking magazine without being lured by the picture-perfect char marks of mouth-watering grill recipes. Grilling is more than a favorite summer pastime. It is also a deliciously healthy cooking method involving little or no added fat and lots of smoky flavor!
The first step in healthy grilling is avoiding food borne illness. Preheat your grill for 15-20 in order to reach proper temperature and be sure to cook all foods, especially meats, to safe temperatures. While preparing and cooking your grilled goodies, be careful to avoid cross-contamination too. Keep meats separate from each other as well as separate from veggies. To be sure meats are thoroughly cooked an instant-read thermometer is cheap, easy and accurate tool for the job.
To avoid chemical exposure, use a gas grill or try to buy additive-free charcoal (if you use charcoal at all) and skip the lighter fluid.
Try to cook meats below 325 degrees. Above that temperature, certain carcinogens (PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) begin to form. While some char is unavoidable (and adds to flavor), do not let the coals get too hot. This will lead to blackening, and these pieces should be cut off to avoid consuming the cancer-causing compounds they contain. By selecting lean meats, trimming off fat and skin, and keeping a squirt bottle of water nearby, it is relatively easy to control grill temperatures. To avoid more charring, skip the sugary sweet sauces like teriyaki and BBQ while grilling and instead brush them on to meats once they are cooked.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, marinating can reduce HCA (heterocyclic amine—a common type of carcinogen) formation by as much as 92-99%. A study out of Kansas State University showed that steaks marinated in three different mixtures of oil, vinegar, herbs and spices had 57-88% fewer carcinogens. Dozens of studies have since confirmed the effect. Also keep in mind, some spices such as thyme, sage, and garlic may yield a 60% reduction in carcinogens. Rosemary is especially useful and may reduce them by up to 90%! The University of Porto in Portugal found similarly beneficial effects from marinating beef in wine or beer for six hours prior to cooking with about 40% reduction in carcinogens.
Luckily, carcinogens do not form in veggies like they do in muscles meats. This provides even more incentive to grill outside the box—try some of your favorite veggies such as zucchini, summer squash, asparagus, peppers, corn, onions, etc. No reason to stop at veggies though! Low water content fruits tend to work well on the grill. Try pineapple, peaches, apples, figs, plantains, etc. You don’t have to stop there. Get inspired and whip up a better, leaner burger like one made with bison (buffalo), salmon, turkey or even a veggie burger! Add more flavor with low fat toppings like yogurt based spread, salsa, and pile on the grilled veggies of course!
The bottom line is that grilling is actually quite simple and good for you. Despite the many tips and tricks there are to remember, it all boils down to keeping your food as tasty and nutritious as possible. In the interest of health, make sure you cook food thoroughly, avoid over-cooking meats (particularly charring), always opt for marinades, and aim to consume more fruits and veggies than meats. By following these easy rules, grilling can quickly make summer the healthiest season of the year!
By: Katie Cavuto, MS, RD