Okay, admittedly it’s still far too hot to stand outside for long enough to even think about lighting a BBQ or grill, but it won’t be long before lots of us are doing just that and until then plenty of us are still enjoying grilled meats at brunches and restaurants.
Eating outside with friends is a fun, social pastime and not one I’m prepared to stop completely, but in recent years growing research has told us that cooking meat over a flame or frying at high temperatures increases our exposure to chemicals which can damage the DNA in our genes, possibly leading to certain cancers such as skin, liver and stomach cancer. The main culprits? Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are created when high heat reacts with and changes the proteins in meat. PAHs are caused as juices and fat drips from meat into flames and the smoke caused rises and sticks to the meat; which we then eat. Adding certain spices and marinades can also change the chemical reactions that occur when meat is grilled.
Don’t throw out your grill just yet but consider these tips to make sure this way of cooking your dinner is a healthier one!
• Avoid barbecue sauces – It is suggested that sauces made with tomato and/or sugars can significantly increase the production of toxic chemicals after as little as just 15-20 minutes of grilling.
• Avoid flare-ups – Whilst those scorched griddle marks across meat both look (and taste) great, they really are a sign of a build-up of damaging chemicals. Precooking meat can help as it avoids the time needed on the BBQ but also place the meat slightly away from the direct flame, turn the heat down slightly and turn more frequently to avoid overcooking. Scrape off any burned areas before eating.
• Don’t cook processed meats (ever) – Any meat that has been salted, smoked or cured such as such as hot dogs, sausages, bacon, ham, salami etc. already contains chemicals used to preserve the meat. These encourage production of carcinogens, regardless of how the meat is cooked. Best avoided altogether in fact.
• Use natural herbs and spices as marinades and ‘rubs’ – Many are understood to reduce the dangerous chemicals produced, possibly due to their high antioxidant status. I always ensure I use the following as rubs on meats or include them alongside in salads and vegetable side dishes: garlic, onion, rosemary, thyme, virgin olive oil, mustard, cloves, apples, apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, oregano, black pepper, paprika, ginger.
• Load your veg – every time you grill meat, eat a good sized portion of vegetables alongside it. These can easily be grilled and don’t produce the same dangerous chemicals. Not only are they are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which can help to counter the effects of grilling but are also a fantastic substitute to meat anyway. In particular, consider adding cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower and cabbage. These contain sulforaphane; a compound which may be particularly effective in helping the liver to detox the DNA-damaging compounds.
• Eat more fish – whilst HCAs are formed in seafood when grilled, it has a much lower amino acid content than most meat and requires less cooking time and therefore forms less HCAs.
• Trim excess fat – This reduces the amount which can drip into the flames. Avoid very fatty meats such as some sausages and ribs. The PAHs in the smoke caused from this can get onto food and even clothes. Choose leaner cuts of meat where you can.