Chew on this: 05/26

Grill smart

By Jayne Powers

Every day, we make decisions about our health regarding the food we eat. Sometimes, we have to pay attention to not only what we eat, but how we prepare our food.

With the air getting warmer and grilling season upon us, you may be planning for a weekend filled with friends and food. Not to put a damper on your Weber, but now would be a good time to raise awareness about the potential effects grilling may have on your health.

You may have read or heard something about whether grilling is unhealthy and causes cancer. That would be true in animals, according to the National Institute of Cancer.

Although the institute said research conducted on humans is unclear, health experts say it is still a good idea to take precautions.

I’ve rounded up 10 tips promoted by Kansas State University’s Research and Extension Office about safer methods for grilling your favorite foods.

But first, I’d like to dive into the science of why grilling may be a cancer risk.

The cancer-causing culprit occurs when you combine meat, poultry and seafood with intense heat. When this occurs, the substances in muscle proteins react and form carcinogenic compounds. They are called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Cooking time and cooking method also influence the creation of PAHs and HCAs. For example, these chemicals also form when pan frying or searing meat on a stovetop.

Basically, the longer and hotter meat, or any muscle protein, is cooked, the more these compounds form. In some studies, grilled chicken has formed higher concentrations of these cancer-causing substances than other types of cooked meat.

Moreover, no federal guidelines address consumption of HCAs and PAHs formed in meat.

With that in mind, consider following these tips by the Kansas State to lower the risk of HCAs and PAHs forming when you grill any kind of meat or seafood. In the tips, I’ll refer to this collective group of muscle protein as simply meat.

Tip No. 1: Marinate your meat. Marinating makes meat taste better and reduces the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Use thin marinades that contain vinegar, lemon or both. This combination coats meat with an acidic surface, which “drastically slows” down the formation of HCAs. Marinating for as little as 40 minutes is effective in reducing HCA. Avoid thicker marinades because they have a tendency to char, which possibly increases exposure to carcinogenic compounds.

Tip No. 2: Flip burgers often – once every minute. Turning burgers once a minute while cooking over lower heat reduces HCA and will also kill E. coli bacteria. The meat should reach 160 degrees to kill the E. coli.

Tip No. 3: Choose smaller cuts of meat, such as kabobs. They take less time to cook.

Tip No. 4: Reduce the cooking time by using a microwave oven to partially cook meat before exposing it to high temperatures on a grill. You could use your oven as well.

Tip No. 5: Create a barrier to prevent juices from spilling and producing harmful smoke flare-ups. Either poke holes through aluminum foil and line your grill with it or use cedar planks. Also, use tongs instead of a fork to turn meat to avoid piercing meat, which release juices and fat that cause flare-ups. That said, you should discard any juices before placing meat on the grill.

Tip No. 6: Sprinkle raw ground meat with vitamin E. Tests show that 120 milligrams of vitamin E powder mixed into four ounces of ground meat reduces HCA formation by 72 percent.

Tip No. 7: Add garlic and herbs, such as rosemary and sage. Both reduce HCA. Mix them into hamburger, use them in a marinade or just eat them in a meal with grilled meat.

Tip No. 8: Place food six inches from the coals, and keep flames from touching the meat directly.

Tip No. 9: Do not char or overcook foods. Don’t eat any portion of the meat that is charred.

Tip No. 10: Add soy to ground meat. This will cut 95 percent of the HCA in burgers without affecting the taste. My favorite is Beefy Crumble, which is 100 percent pea protein, made by Beyond Meat. Adding this product also extends the beef in a healthful way because it doesn’t contain saturated fat. Find it in the frozen food section.

These tips are doable and make for a healthier grilling experience. I’d also like to remind you that other plant-based foods make great grilling alternatives. Try grilling sweet onion paired with fresh mango slices sprinkled with peanuts and lime juice. Corn, of course, is another go-to veggie for grilling. Leave the husk on for more of a steamed effect.

Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at, or email your fitness questions to

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Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at

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