It’s always a keystone ritual in the yearly spring ceremonies. When the weather finally turns warm, the last snow has finally fallen (or has it?), and you’re running barefoot in the newly budded grass, it’s time to roll out the ole grill from storage, dust it off, and get ready for summer dining season—al fresco, au natural. Burgers, hot dogs and tofu kebabs—oh my!
But there’s an ugly side to all that seasonal grilling. The longer your food grills, the more it chars... and while the tastier it becomes, the more carcinogenic it also becomes. How bad is grilling for us, and is there any way to reduce the damage?
Grilling works as a cooking method by exposing food directly to the heat source—i.e. the flame. The longer foods are exposed to this intense heat, the more carcinogenic compounds, called heterocyclic amines (or HCAs, for short), are formed—and it’s only worse with meat products. HCAs directly damage the DNA of our genes, which can effectively (and oftentimes quickly) jumpstart the formation of cancer.
Don’t fret, though. There are ways to reduce the amounts of HCAs that form when you grill. Karen Collins, a Registered Dietitian of the American Institute for Cancer Research, has given the following advice for those looking to get their seasonal grill fix without the cancer risks: Lower the heat. If using a gas grill, switch the knob to a lower setting. If you’ve got a charcoal grill, allow the charcoals to burn down to glowing embers before tossing your foods on. Higher heats form higher amounts of char on foods (those are the HCAs), but a lower heat and longer cooking time will result in less HCAs.
Aside from cooking heat and time, researchers have found an even more surprising—and delicious—way to reduce exposure to HCAs while grilling. Amazingly enough, the spices found in rub and marinade mixtures (even generic store-bought varieties) actually reduce the amount of HCAs formed during grilling. Their impact is incredible. A marinade full of spices like thyme, rosemary or cumin can reduce HCA formation by up to 92 percent! The secret is in the high concentration of antioxidants found in the spices and herbs. We’ve known that eating fresh vegetables prevents cancer because of their antioxidants. Now we see that spices and herbs contain similar antioxidants in such strong amounts that just by adding them to our grilling marinades, they can help to reduce cancer risks.
So don’t be too afraid to bring out the grill this season. Just use a marinade, and make sure it’s one full of spice. And don’t char the hell out of whatever it is you’re cooking. Give it a low, steady heat, keep brushing with that spicy glaze, and enjoy without the worry.