Food as Medicine

Food as Medicine. Good Eats, Summer Grilling

Food as
Medicine—Good Eats, Summer Grilling

By Evelyn Spence

You’ve made the potato salad, chilled the beer, and covered the patio table
with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. On the grill, steaks and burgers
sizzle over white-hot coals. What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing—except for
the sizzling. If that meat sits on the barby over too high a temperature for
too long, it can harbor newly created carcinogens.

At high
heat, the protein in beef, pork, poultry, and fish reacts with a compound in
muscles called creatine to form cancer-causing heterocyclic amines (HCAs). The
longer the cooking time at this high temperature, the more HCAs form. Numerous
studies, published everywhere from the American Journal of Epidemiology to
Nutrition and Cancer and Mutation Research, have found an association between
eating barbequed, well-done, or fried meats and an increased risk for cancers
of the breast, pancreas, stomach, and colon.

To add fuel to the proverbial fire, another set of carcinogens, called
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), form when fat or juice from the meat
drips onto the coals and burns. The PAHs rise in the smoke and come to rest on
the grilling food. Research on animals has shown exposure to PAHs damages the
reproductive system and skin, impairs the ability to fight disease, and
increases cancer risk. As for PAHs’ risk to humans, “We’re talking about more
of an association with cancer rather than a proven risk, and we’re still
learning, but it’s still a good idea to reduce your exposure however you can,”
says Mark Knize, an analytical chemist at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory in California, who has spent a decade studying carcinogens in
grilling. “After all, back in the day, people didn’t know the danger of
secondhand smoke either, and we liken this situation to that.”

But don’t chuck your Weber just yet. Thankfully, a few simple adjustments to
your outdoor-cooking routine can reduce or even eliminate carcinogens in your
barbequed food.

Lean, mean grilling machine

Start by choosing your meat wisely. Fatty cuts of beef and pork, followed by
chicken with the skin still on it, pose the most risk. “A lot of chemicals in
the fat drip off, hit the briquettes, and then get infused into the meat when
there are flare-ups,” says Dave Grotto, nutrition director for the Block Center
for Integrative Cancer Care in Illinois and a spokesperson for the American
Dietetic Association. So trim off the fat, remove any skin, and choose low-fat
cuts like flank steak.

Fish, especially leaner choices such as sole, halibut, or bass, are much safer
than red meats and poultry. Safer still—grilled vegetables and fruit. “Veggies
and fruit don’t have the same chemical precursors, especially the creatine,
that red meat or chicken or even fatty fish does, which means carcinogens don’t
form,” says Bill Jameson, director of the Report on Carcinogens for the
National Toxicology Program. Dairy, eggs, soy products like tofu, and organ
meats like liver also pretty much lack the building blocks for the carcinogens.

The marinating marvel

After choosing your chop, marinate it. Strong research has shown that
marinating your meat significantly reduces the amount of HCAs (though it
doesn’t affect PAHs). A 1997 study in Food Chemistry Toxicology, for example,
showed that marinating whole chicken breast in a mixture of brown sugar, olive
oil, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice, and salt dropped HCA levels
by about 90 percent. In a later study, researchers at the Cancer Research Center
of Hawaii found that a turmeric-garlic sauce reduced the carcinogenic compounds
by 50 percent and a teriyaki concoction decreased them by 67 percent. “We just
pulled the recipe from a cookbook and were surprised at the powerful effect,”
says Knize, who helped conduct the 1997 research.

Not only that, Knize and his colleagues tried isolating each
ingredient—marinating only in oil, for example, or only in vinegar—but nothing
worked as well as the mixture of sugar, oil, and acid. “It doesn’t even matter
whether you marinate it for eight hours or just dip it in sauce,” Knize says.

Researchers don’t know exactly how marinades protect against HCAs—whether by
buffering the heat or by reacting with HCAs and their precursors to neutralize
them—but the benefits of bathing your beef remain clear.

You also can nip HCAs in the bud by mixing one or more simple ingredients into
your patties before grilling them. Through their antioxidant properties, a few
cloves of minced garlic, fruit like tart cherries, blueberries, and plums, a
pinch of rosemary, or 120 mg of vitamin E oil all dramatically reduce
carcinogens in the meat. Interestingly adding textured soy protein (1/2 cup per
pound ground meat) cut HCA levels by 95 percent in one study. According to
Swedish researchers, blending 1 gram of potato starch for every 100 grams of
meat also inhibits HCA formation without altering taste.

Nuke power

If you prefer your food au naturel with no marinade or blend-ins, you still can
get that grilled, smoky flavor without spawning hazardous chemicals. Just zap
the meat in the microwave for one to three minutes, discard the juices, and
finish it off over the flames. You also can precook the meat in an oven at 350
degrees or lower. This cuts the HCA content three- to nine-fold, and “You’ll
get the grilled look and taste without the potential harm,” says Carl Winter,
director of the FoodSafe program at the University of California, Davis.

Whether you microwave, roast, stew, boil, or poach (but not broil or fry) it,
precooking your meat before grilling it will minimize the amount of time it
spends at high heat. Make sure, also, to discard the liquid from the precooked
meat to remove harmful HCA building blocks like creatine. The best part? The
meat has mostly cooked already—no more watching your guests cut into charred
chicken with pink insides.

Flip out

Turning your meat frequently—once every minute—reduces HCAs as well, according
to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. “If you alternate
sides, the high temperatures don’t have time to build up,” Knize says. “One
side of the burger becomes hot, but before it gets too hot, you flip it. Then
that hot side cools off, the other side heats, and you flip it again.” Keeping
portion sizes small, like kabobs for instance, shortens the cooking time also,
thus, decreasing HCA levels.

Since heat is heat, it doesn’t matter very much whether you use a charcoal,
hickory, mesquite, or gas grill. Nevertheless, gas grills make it easier to
control the temperature. “You should keep things set on medium heat,” Knize
says. “Even if it takes longer to cook, it’s safer, because you’re keeping the
temperature under control.” If you prefer coal, says Grotto, “Move it to one
side of the grate and put your food on the other.” This way, you expose your
dinner to less fire and less smoke, reducing your risk of both HCAs and PAHs.

Just make sure all your meat reaches at least 160 degrees internally (measured
with a meat thermometer). Otherwise, even when meat looks done on the inside
and the juices run clear, it may not have cooked enough to kill all the

By cooking your meat at lower temperatures and incorporating a few of these
tricks into your barbeque routine, you can dramatically boost the healthfulness
of your grilling. Your food might not taste all that different, but you can
safely encourage your guests to “Eat up”—so long as they save room for dessert.


Forget the hotdogs. This mouthwatering grilled halibut with asparagus and sweet
peppers and peaches for dessert not only tastes great, but also thwarts the
carcinogens that can form while grilling.

The following recipes are adapted from Grilling by the Culinary Institute of
America (Lebhar-Friedman, 2006).

Grilled Halibut With Thyme


6 6-ounce halibut steaks

2 tablespoons cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper (or to taste)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

1 lemon, cut into wedges

1. Preheat a gas grill to medium. For a charcoal grill, build a fire and let it
burn down until the coals are glowing red with a moderate coating of white ash.

2. Combine oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme. Brush the lemon
juice mixture over outside of each steak.

3. Grill fish, turning frequently until cooked through, for a total of
approximately four minutes on each side. Garnish with lemon wedges.

Grilled Asparagus and Sweet Peppers


2 pounds asparagus, trimmed

4 red peppers, cored and quartered

1/2 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

4 thyme sprigs

1 rosemary sprig

Juice of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 lemon

1. Combine all ingredients in a ziplock bag. Let marinate in the refrigerator
between 2 and 8 hours.

2. Preheat gas grill to medium heat, or for charcoal, see halibut recipe.

3. Remove asparagus and peppers from marinade and grill until browned on both
sides, 5 to 7 minutes each side.

Grilled Peaches With Raspberry Sauce


4 peaches, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup Raspberry Sauce (recipe below)

1. Preheat gas grill to high.

2. Toss peaches with sugar and lemon juice.

3. Grill peaches until tender in the middle, 2 to 3 minutes per side. If
desired, serve over ice cream, topped with Raspberry Sauce.

Raspberry Sauce:

1 pound raspberries, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice or more to taste

Combine all ingredients in saucepan over medium heat. Simmer, stirring, until
sugar has dissolved, about 10 minutes.

Sweet and Zesty Sweet Marinade

By Dave Grotto

Ideal for chicken, fish, vegetables, and tofu, this marinade combines
sweetness, acidity, and oils for maximum protection against carcinogenic


1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup orange juice

3 tablespoons agave syrup

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cloves crushed garlic

Mix ingredients well. Marinate overnight.

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