Master the Art of Healthy Grilling

Whether it’s with your family, a small group of friends and neighbors, or a large summer bash with everyone you know, grilling is quintessentially summer. We do it in our backyards, at company picnics, while we’re camping, and at the beach or the lake—there’s just something about firing up the grill and cooking your food outside in good company that makes a meal feel celebratory, even if you’ve got nothing to celebrate other than the simple fact that summer has arrived! But did you know there’s a dark side to grilling? Sorry to rain on the, um, cookout, but you can unwittingly create some pretty toxic compounds while grilling your steak or burgers. The worst of these are heterocyclic amines (HCAs), carcinogenic compounds that are created when meat is cooked at high temperatures. (Those charred bits you love to eat? Sorry, but they are full of HCAs.) The good news is that by making small modifications to how you grill, you can reduce the formation and effects of these yucky compounds, and master the art of healthy grilling!

bbq-kabobs1. Inhibit the formation of HCAs.

This is the fun part! A number of herbs, spices, and other foods have been shown to significantly inhibit the formation of HCAs during grilling, and they are easy to incorporate into a marinade, a rub, or even directly into the meat. You’re not only enhancing the flavor of the meat, you’re also creating a healthier end product.

A simple and highly effective way to reduce the formation of HCAs in your grilled meats is to add a little vitamin E directly to ground meat or apply it to the surface of larger cuts. It doesn’t take much either—all you need is one 400 IU capsule of natural vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol) to treat 10 pounds of hamburger.[9] 6 Researchers have also found that when there are higher levels of vitamin E in the meat to begin with it leads to lower HCA levels in the cooked meat.[10] Grass-fed beef is naturally higher in vitamin E than its grain-fed counterpart, four times higher in fact, and nearly twice as high as grain-fed animals supplemented with vitamin E.[11]

One study compared steaks marinated three different ways—with a teriyaki marinade, with one containing turmeric and garlic, and with a traditional tomato-based honey barbecue sauce—with unmarinated steaks. The steaks were marinated overnight. After 15 minutes of cooking time, both the steak with the teriyaki marinade and the steak with the turmeric-garlic marinade had around a 60% lower HCA level compared to the unmarinated steaks. But the steak marinated in the tomato-based sauce had a significant increase in HCA levels, with double the amounts after 15 minutes of cooking time compared to the unmarinated steak.[12] Bottom line? If you love your sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce, add it after you’ve grilled your meat.

There are numerous herbs, spices, and aromatics that have proven to inhibit the formation of HCAs, likely because of their antioxidant polyphenols—green and black teas, turmeric, rosemary, thyme, garlic, oregano, onion, basil, parsley, cumin, and coriander have all been shown to hinder the formation of HCAs.[13] [14] [15] [16] These all make wonderful additions to both marinades and dry rubs. In the case of ground meat, you can mix them directly into the meat.

Beer aficionados, this one’s for you! A 2015 study tested the effect of three types of beer—pilsner, non-alcoholic pilsner, and dark beer—used as marinades on the formation of HCAs in charcoal-grilled pork, compared to unmarinated pork. While all three beers resulted in a significant decrease in HCAs, the dark beer was most effective, resulting in 90% less HCAs forming compared to the non-marinated pork.[17] A previous study found similar results with beer and beef.[18]

2. Put it to the fire… carefully.

Now that you’ve got your meat prepped and ready to go, it is time to put it on the fire. This is another easy place to make modifications to reduce HCAs. If you are using a gas grill, use a lower temperature whenever possible—once temperatures begin to reach 400°F HCA formation increases.[19] [20] If you’ve got a two-burner grill, you can turn on both burners, start your meat as you normally would, and then turn off the heat under the meat, close the grill, and allow the heat from the other side to finish cooking the meat. If you are using a charcoal grill, mound the charcoal to one side and cook on the opposite side of the flames. Another good tip is to flip frequently, which helps prevent the temperature of the meat from getting too high. And finally, don’t overcook your meat—well-done meat contains significantly more HCAs compared to medium and medium-rare meat.[21] (You can find safe minimum cooking temperatures for all types of meat at Should you see any black char on your meat be sure to cut away and discard those bits, they are a sure sign of HCAs.

3. Make sure your meat is in good company.

The final step in mastering the art of healthy grilling is to pair your meat entrée with sides and condiments that can minimize the harmful effects of HCAs in your body. One exceptional way to do this is to include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt to your meals with grilled meat (a burger topped with sauerkraut or kimchi? Yes, please!). Beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods, such as Lactobacilli and Streptococcus thermophiles, have been shown to bind to HCAs in the intestines and inhibit their absorption.[22] [23] [24] [25] Including a quality probiotic supplement in your daily routine is also a good idea. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale contain compounds that specifically inhibit the toxicity associated with HCAs during the body’s detoxification process so they can be excreted from the body.[26] [27] In vitro studies have shown that green tea, red wine, blueberries, blackberries, red grapes, watermelon, and spinach can also protect against the toxicity of certain HCAs.[28] It’s pretty easy to imagine how you might build a delicious and healthy meal composed of grilled grass-fed steak, broccoli slaw with a tangy herb- yogurt dressing, and a watermelon and blueberry salad, with a glass of iced green tea to wash it all down!

So this summer when you fire up the grill don’t let HCAs get you down! While they should be considered serious threats to good health, especially for those who regularly enjoy grilling, with a few simple tweaks you can easily master the art of healthy grilling!


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