Safe Grilling Strategies

By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D., Best Life lead nutritionist

I know it's officially summer when I catch a whiff of the familiar smoky smell of my neighbor's dinners wafting into my window—a reminder of the joys and perils of grilling your food. While grilling is an incredibly lean way to cook, it does have a dark side. Cooking food over a high, open flame can produce carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances. Before you give up on grilling, there are a few ways you can safeguard yourself and still have your grilled chicken, burgers and other summer favorites.

First, let's take a look at what's happening with your food. Throwing your grub on the grill can cause:

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Combine muscle meat with intense heat and you'll get a chemical reaction that results in the production of these compounds. (They're not just found in barbecued meats, though. Pan-frying, electric grilling or broiling can also produce HCAs.) So steer clear of blackened and charred meats. Or, opt for plant-based foods, such as vegetables or tofu; they don't contain these chemicals.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). You'll find these compounds in barbecue smoke. So, anything that makes the grill smokier—like fat that drips from the food and hits the coals or flame—produces even more PAHs. Then, the chemical-laden smoke gets absorbed by your food. Unfortunately, these are equal-opportunity chemicals, affecting meats, veggies and bread.

But don't hang up your spatula just yet. You can minimize your risk by:

• Marinating. Using the recipe below, scientists from Lawrence Livermore Labs in Livermore, California, got rid of 95 percent of HCAs in poultry. They're still not sure how it works; it may have to do with the marinade cooling down the meat. Any oil-and-vinegar marinade should be protective.

• Flipping. Another study from Livermore Labs found that turning burgers every minute reduced HCA formation by up to 99 percent compared to burgers that were flipped every five minutes.

• Microwaving. Zapping meat to a half-cooked state before grilling removes some of the substances that react to heat and greatly reduces the chances of creating HCAs.

• Cooking on the cooler part of the grill. Move food to the edge of the grill or to a spot where food won't drip directly on the heat source. If your propane or gas grill has a "dual burner," turn one burner off and cook on the other side.

• Buying lower fat meats, chicken and fish. Reduce the amount of fat that drips onto the grill, and you'll reduce the amount of PAH that's created.

• Regulating temperature. The heat should be high enough to cook food thoroughly, but low enough to prevent charring.

• Dousing. Use a squirt bottle to douse flames that get too high.

• Avoiding mesquite. Burning this wood generates lots of PAHs. Instead, use oak or hickory.

• Steaming vegetables in advance. That way, they spend less time on the grill and have less of a chance to absorb smoke.

Lawrence Livermore Marinade
This marinade, used in the Lawrence Livermore Labs experiment, reduces HCA formation by up to 95 percent.

3 medium garlic cloves, crushed
1½ teaspoons salt
½ cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons grainy mustard
¼ cup cider vinegar
Juice of 1 lime (approximately 3 tablespoons)
Juice of ½ large lemon (approximately 2 tablespoons)
6 tablespoons olive oil
6 chicken breast halves

1. Combine all ingredients except for chicken in a large bowl. Season with pepper. Marinate chicken in liquid several hours or overnight (refrigerated).

2. Bring to room temperature before charcoal-broiling.

3. Grill chicken until cooked through. Serve.