The unofficial start of summer kicks off this Memorial Weekend and millions of people will barbecue to celebrate. I’m a big fan of grilling, but as a cooking process, the critics are right that high heat and charred meat can produce carcinogenic compounds. Luckily there are some simple things you can do to lesson your risks and improve your health overall.
I want to talk about two groups of compounds in particular: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Researchers have found 17 different carcinogenic HCAs that are created by combining amino acids and creatine at high heat. HCAs are absorbed by eating them but PAHs can be eaten, inhaled, or as a recent study found, you actually absorb more of them through your skin than through your lungs. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are airborne pollutants. In grilling, they are typically produced from fat dripping into the fire. They’re part of what makes that great barbecue scent, but they can also be carcinogenic. PAHs are also created by burning any organic matter, so burning wood or coal-based power plants put it into our environment all the time.
While that sounds grim, there are easy ways to reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs produced when you grill, plus there is a simple side dish you can add to your plate that will fire up your body’s natural detoxifying processes to neutralize these compounds.
Pick your marinades
High heat and longer cooking times increase the concentration of HCAs. The rarer the meat, the less there will be. Don’t worry though, those that like a well-done steak or prefer that their chicken or pork doesn’t give them food poisoning aren’t completely out of luck. Multiple studies have found that marinating your meat beforehand can greatly reduce the amount of HCAs produced.
One study found that a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic reduced HCA levels in chicken by as much as 90 percent and soaking steak in beer or wine for 6 hours also reduced HCA levels by 90 percent. Another study was interesting because it compared low-sugar, vinegar-based marinades of teriyaki sauce and turmeric-garlic sauce with a standard high-sugar, store-bought barbecue sauce. The low-sugar marinades reduced HCA levels by over 60 percent compared to unmarinated steaks while the store-bought honey barbecue sauce tripled the production of HCAs.
Clear the air
There are a few steps you can take to reduce the PAHs you pump into the air. These will also help reduce the char on the meat so you’ll limit HCAs as well. First, trim as much visible fat as possible. I’ve written many times before that saturated fat has been unfairly demonized, but in the case of grilling, it does increase health risks a bit. Reducing the fat will reduce the drippings that fall into the fire. This will also limit those flares ups that burn the meat and increase HCA char.
You should also try to cook at a lower temperature. One of the benefits of hot grilling is fast cook times that seal in the juice and flavor, but you really can get the same effect at a lower temperature. Most people are surprised when they find out I cook everything between medium and low heat at our barbecues. It’s still plenty hot, but it reduces char and stops flare ups from dripping fat (which further reduces the amount of fat that drips out). If you’re extra concerned about PAHs, you can put foil on the grate to catch any drippings. Just make sure you curl up the edges to make it into a little bowl.
Trim the char
Char lines are fine but no one likes the burnt little bits of char from a flare up. They taste terrible and they’re nothing but a concentrated cluster of HCAs. Just cut them off completely. It’s not going to decrease the enjoyment of your meal to remove the char (quite the opposite).
Clear your system
The most important thing you can do to clear your system of grilling pollutants (as well as all the other air pollutants that surround you each day) is to make sure to add cruciferous vegetables to the side of your plate. I’ve previously written about one of the most potent triggers of your body’s natural detoxifying processes, sulforaphane. This isothiocyanate is found in vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts but the highest concentration is found in broccoli sprouts. Plenty of research has found that sulforaphane neutralizes dangerous air pollutants like benzene in your system so it makes sense that it also inhibits the damaging effects of both HCAs and PAHs. Remember, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are airborne and ubiquitous. Sulforaphane actually increases the presence of detoxifying enzymes in the lungs so it’s the perfect counter to airborne pollutants (as well as what you absorb into your bloodstream).
The process of chewing the vegetables is what combines glucoraphanin and myrosinase to make sulforaphane. You can increase the amount of sulforaphane in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables if you steam it lightly for three to four minutes until it’s tough-tender, but if you cook it too long, you destroy the myrosinase and prevent sulforaphane from forming. Adding crushed mustard seed to your cooked vegetables afterwards is a workaround that does successfully produce sulforaphane. Whether you eat it raw, steamed, or cooked with mustard seed powder, add cruciferous vegetables to the side of your barbecue plate so you can enjoy your meal without worry. It’s about more than just detoxifying a few grilling by-products. Adding cruciferous vegetables to your diet has been shown to reduce your all-cause mortality risk by 22 percent. It should be an important component of everyone’s diet.
Bury the bitter
Cruciferous vegetables have tremendous anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and cardiovascular protective effects, but so many people skip them because they don’t like bitter tastes. It’s not pickiness, it’s really a natural instinct we evolved over the millennia. Sweet things tended to be safe to eat, while bitter things tended to be poisonous. In fact, sulforaphane is actually a natural insecticide. That’s why it’s formed by chewing the vegetable. We just also evolved an adaptation that turned that toxin into a benefit. Just like how exercise is a stressor that elicits positive adaptations in our bodies, sulforaphane is a stressor that activates important adaptations that detoxify pollutants and reduce harmful inflammation.
Like I said above, broccoli sprouts not only have the most sulforaphane but they’re also pretty flavorless. They’re a good option for the really bitter-averse. You can also put various dips like hummus, cheese, or ranch next to some cauliflower or broccoli florets. It buries their flavor and these vegetables provide a nice, satisfying crunch. It’s not something I suggest you always do, but it’s a great way to sneak a little health into a celebration. You don’t need to eat 100 percent clean or 100 percent junk food.
You lose your aversion to bitter with repeated exposure. As your body learns that this particular bitter taste is not a poison, the protective instinct to avoid it fades away. It’s OK to use some unhealthy aids to transition you (or your kids) to healthier foods. Just focus on the benefits of the foods you’re eating rather than dwelling on the calories from the dips. You can work on cutting those out after the barbecue.