For the healthiest grill possible, try lots of lightly grilled vegetables and lean cuts of marinated meat.
Devising a summer menu these days that balances tastiness against the risk of getting heart disease, food poisoning, or cancer can seem impossible.
Relax. There is a middle path, even for carnivores.
It's true that some studies suggest that eating meat cooked over coals (or pan-fried or broiled, for that matter) a few times a week may slightly increase your risk of getting cancer. But precisely which cancers -- and how much the risk is increased -- remains fuzzy.
"We know that we're not talking about the sort of strong link we see with cigarette smoking and cancer," says Rashmi Sinha, a nutritional epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute who has studied the problem. "Grilling poses a many-times smaller risk."
And there are ways to cut that risk even further. So barbecue-lovers, hold on to your spatulas and try these tactics instead:
BURGERS AND STEAKS
Use leaner cuts. Reducing the fat in your steak or ground round will curb the risk to the heart, and also whittle the chances that fat dripping through the grill will hit the coals and flare up to char the meat. Scraping off the char -- or preventing it from forming -- decreases one family of chemicals that can cause cancer. These are called "polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons" or PAHs.
Unfortunately, eating leaner cuts won't shield you from the second group of carcinogens, known as "heterocyclic amines" or HCAs. During prolonged cooking at high temperatures, HCAs form beneath the surface of meat, due to an interaction between free amino acids and creatine, which are reactive molecules found naturally in meat.
So add ground fruit, or soy, or potato starch to ground meat to avoid HCAs. The idea here is to use less meat. (Eating smaller steaks, of course, is useful, too). Pleva's Meats in Cedar, MI., markets a ground beef containing about 10 percent ground, tart cherries, a mixture found in at least one study to significantly reduce the formation of HCAs -- with the added bonus of producing a burger that's juicer than one made of meat alone.
Biologist Mark Knize of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who studies the carcinogens formed in cooking, says that adding other fruit, or meat substitutes from soy or other vegetable sources should work just as well.
Wrap it in foil. We're lucky here; fillets or fish steaks cooked inside foil packets with whatever spices or juices you like actually taste better (and are more likely to stay moist and hold together) than fillets cooked directly on the grill.
Retaining moisture is key to preventing the chemical reaction inside fish and meat that produces carcinogens at high heat.
Marinate. Skinless chicken may be healthier for the heart than red meat because it contains less fat, but it can be even higher in HCAs when cooked on the grill, probably because it loses moisture so readily.
Removing the skin after cooking lowers that risk somewhat. Even better, marinating skinless chicken pieces for 10 minutes before grilling them will increase the moisture content and cut HCAs, without upping the fat.
Sinha says pre-cooking chicken briefly at low heat in the oven before grilling also works, as does microwaving the meat, though microwaving can make chicken rubbery.
Eat fewer. Although only scant amounts of HCAs have been found in grilled hot dogs (probably because the casing seals in moisture), that doesn't make them risk-free. Nitrites often used to preserve hot dogs, sausages, hams and other processed meats have been linked to cancer, too. Some studies suggest that eating fruits and vegetables alongside may cut that risk.
Eat more. Do try not to burn them to a crisp (PAHs form in charred food of any kind). But HCAs don't form in vegetables. That's one reason the American Cancer Society encourages barbecue lovers to eat slimmer portions of meat and fill those plates instead with lightly grilled peppers, yellow squash, mushrooms, corn, onions, or whatever vegetable or fruit strikes your fancy.