Culinary trends come and go. Some are good, like kale, chia seed and quinoa, and then some are flat-out bad, like this new trend to burn and char foods on the grill. Mainstream magazines are anointing this chef craze with titles like “Dessert on the Dark Side,” “Ashes to Ashes,” and “Burn, Baby, Burn.” All of these articles promote what they describe as “intentional charred deliciousness.”
But eating charred foods comes with some health risks.
Anything that is blackened — from popcorn and leeks to meat and bread products — carries a risk of carcinogens, which are cancer-causing substances. The American Institute for Cancer Research points out that grilling might increase the risk of various cancers. Cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are produced when animal protein is cooked at the high temperatures used in grilling and broiling. Other cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when meat fat drips onto hot coals. As food cooks on the grill, flames and smoke help deposit the PAHs onto the food you eat.
There is evidence that smoking and charring foods can damage DNA and may be carcinogenic. There’s also the concern regarding sodium nitrite, a simple salt (NaNO2) used in bacon, ham, hot dogs, cold cuts and cured foods. These foods can form nitrosamines, which are known to be powerful carcinogens in animals.
The good news? You don’t have to say goodbye to grilling this summer. You can barbecue safely by following these tips:
Choose the right barbecue. Use a cooker or barbecue grill where you can raise or lower the rack. Also, find a cooker with a cover and base vent that allows you to control the amount of oxygen that gets inside. That, in turn helps you control the flame or eliminate it.
Light it right. Avoid charcoal briquettes that contain chemicals, and ignite the grill using an electric starter or chimney starter with newspaper — not lighter fluid.
Use a marinade. Some studies suggest that marinating meat prior to grilling can actually reduce the formation of HCAs. Other research shows a significant decrease of harmful HCAs when food is marinated with herbs like rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, sage, marjoram, and mint. In addition to keeping your foods safe from cancer-causing compounds, marinades boost their flavor, while keeping food moist during grilling. Just don’t reuse your marinades. Making a fresh batch for basting every time you cook eliminates the risk of bacterial contamination.
Drain off excess marinade. Draining off any extra marinade helps prevent the excess sauce from dripping down onto the flames, which can cause burning and charring.
Cook small, lean, and thin foods. That’s because they won’t need to remain on the grill for longer lengths of time, which can lead to charring or burning. Make sure the meats you cook with are lean and trimmed of fat so they won’t induce flames. Also, ditch the use of salt-cured, smoked and nitrite-cured foods.
Start cold. Place the food you’re grilling on cold racks at beginning of cooking to prevent char marks on the food.
Keep things moving. Turn foods frequently to prevent charring or burning. Use long tongs, if necessary. Move cooked pieces of food off to the side and give the remaining uncooked foods the attention of the hottest part of the grill.