One of These 6 Grilling Mistakes Could Be Costing You

Barbecuing may be a summertime staple, but there are legitimate grilling issues that can jeopardize your health. Here’s how to play with fire in a healthier way.

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There are few things more enjoyable during flip-flop season than grabbing your tongs and firing up the grill.  As you may have heard, where there’s smoke there is a delicious meal in the works. And when you plop the right foods on the grate, cooking in the great outdoors can flood your body with all the nutrition needed to support your sporting pursuits. But along with those enticing smells and tastes can come some health risks if you’re not careful. Some of which may surprise you and leave you wondering if you should run back to the oven for dinner tonight. There is no reason to put out the flames if you follow these six tips needed to avoid these grilling missteps that could be burning your health.

Grilling Mistake #1: You Make Calculated Guesses

Nothing will upend your training quicker than a bout of food poisoning, cases of which typically peak in the warmer months where bacteria can more easily flourish. To take the guesswork out of determining when grilled meats are safe to eat without overcooking them into shoe leather, we suggest using an instant-read digital thermometer to ensure that they’ve reached a safe minimum internal temperature where harmful bacteria are sent packing. According to the USDA, hamburgers can actually turn brown prematurely, before they reach a safe internal temperature—giving the appearance of being done. Check meat temperatures correctly by inserting the thermometer probe midway through the thickest part of the meat (the edges will be hotter, which won’t tell you if the meat is safe to the core). Grill cuts of meat like steak and pork chops to an internal temperature of at least 145°F, followed by a three-minute rest time. According to the USDA, poultry should be prepared to 165°F, fish to 145°F, while all types of ground meat including beef and chicken need to be heated to 160°F. You also have to be sure the food is handled properly during the grilling process. For instance, remember to use clean utensils and plates to remove cooked meat from the grill. It can be easy to lose track of what’s touched raw meat, an oversight that can lead to cross-contamination.

Grilling Mistake #2: You Have an Appetite For Char

Nothing screams summer like a juicy hamburger or flame-licked chicken, but if you’re not careful you could be fueling your body on chemical cuisine. The concern stems from the discovery that grilled meats can drive up the formation of two worrisome chemicals – heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – both linked to the increased risk for certain cancers like prostate, breast and colorectal and maybe even type 2 diabetes, according to a variety of NIH stodies. The first, HCAs, are found in the char on meats that have been singed over a flame. (Searing temps create a reaction between amino acids and creatine found in meats.) PAHs occur when fat drippings fall onto heating elements or hot coals and create smoke – which then rises, causing the chemical to cling to your steak or pork chop.

Though studies have yet to show that occasional exposure to these chemicals in levels found on barbecued meats possess a significant health risk to humans, it’s best to take steps to limit exposure. Opting for leaner cuts of meat such as pork tenderloin or chicken breast means less dripping fat to produce PAHs. Keep a squirt bottle of water handy to control flare-ups. Frequently flipping your meat limits heat exposure and, in turn, charring which could help lower HCA formation. Lining your grill with foil that has some holes poked into it can help prevent any direct contact between flame and food as well as limiting fat drippings. Try grilling smaller portions of meat so they cook faster and spend less time on the hot grill. For a larger cut of meat that takes longer to cook, partially precooking it in the microwave and then finishing it on the grill can eliminate some of the carcinogen production. And don’t eat any super-blackened spots, these can be cut or scraped off. One study found a much greater formation of PAHs when food was cooked using charcoal briquettes compared with liquid propane gas. Overall, it’s probably a good idea to limit your intake of grilled or barbecued meat to a couple of times a week.

Grilling Mistake #3: You Hover Too Much

For most of your grilling time, it’s a smart move to stay a few tongs length from the hot box. In a study appearing in Environmental Science & Technology, scientists report that skin is a more important pathway for the uptake of potentially carcinogenic compounds including PAHs found in barbecue fumes than what occurs with inhalation. They also determined that clothing cannot fully protect us from this exposure. So make sure not to linger around the smoky grill when you’re sizzling up those kebabs.

Grilling Mistake #4: You Forget to Add Extra Flavor

Marinating your meats not only boosts flavor and keeps items like chicken breast juicy, but it may also make them safer to feast on. For instance, research has found that marinating pork in beer can cut the production of PAHs during grilling. And a report in the journal Meat Science discovered that dousing pork loin in vinegar (a common ingredient in marinades) slashes the production of PAHs during charcoal grilling. Marinades have also been shown to limit the production of heterocyclic amines in grilled meats and fish. A marinade may also provide an extra barrier between flame and flesh. Dry rubs containing spices and herbs may also reduce carcinogen production. One study from the University of Arkansas showed that rosemary extract could reduce HCA levels ranging from 30 to 100 percent. Practically speaking, it’s best to marinate meats for two hours or longer for the biggest impact.

Grilling Mistake #5: You Overlook Plants

Meat shouldn’t get all the live-fire love. To up the nutritional ante of your grilling feasts, try dropping plants on your grill grates more often. Everything from bell peppers to mushrooms to peaches can benefit from getting some smoky essence. This will increase your intake of important nutrients and antioxidants to support training needs. Tofu, tempeh, and veggie burgers (making your own will be healthier than most store-bought patties) are grill-worthy plant-based proteins that come with the benefit of not forming the same levels of potentially harmful chemicals when sent to the flames. Furthermore, an investigation in JAMA Internal Medicine found that replacing some animal proteins—such as steak and burgers—with plant-based proteins may reduce the risk of premature death overall and death from cardiovascular disease.

Grilling Mistake #6: You Grill Dinner on Dirty Grates

Those charred bits of food stuck to your grill grates are laden with unhealthy chemicals that can be transferred to your next round of burgers. Besides, preparing foods on a dirty grate increases stick risk and imparting them with acrid tastes. The best time to clean a grill grate is when it’s piping hot, so immediately after you have removed your food from the grill or following several minutes of preheating. Employ a long-handled brass bristle brush which allows you to clean the entire surface of your gunked-up grill grate without burning your fingers. For a spotless, spick and span grill, you should also consider soaking your grates a couple of times during outdoor cooking season. Fill up a large bucket with water and dish soap, add a little baking soda, and let the grates soak for at least an hour before you scrub and rinse.