Is Grilling Healthy?
No. Grilling is NOT Healthy.
At least, not the way most of us do it. I know that’s a bit of a hard answer, but it’s the truth.
Grilling actually has a few different issues that we’re going to talk about, and I know that’s weird because this is a grilling site, but just hear me out: all of the information in this post today likely won’t change the way you currently grill.
It’ll just make you privy to the data, and might have you looking at different types of charcoal or using more tin foil in your grilling.
We both know that grilled food is the closest thing to heaven that we get to enjoy each day, and I’m not here to ruin that for you.
I’m just here to enlighten you on the subject.
We’re going to discuss carcinogens, methods to grill in a more healthy manner, grill marks, soot, and a ton of other stuff.
Why is Grilled Food Considered Unhealthy?
The American Institute for Cancer Research states that you shouldn’t have red meat more than three times per week, and in small portions, for that matter.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m grilling, I’m planning on eating grilled food for most of the day.
That means multiple portions, usually of what is considered red meat.
Since grilling is associated with red meat, and you’re more likely to ingest it while grilling, it is an unhealthy mindset to get into.
Not only that, but you have carcinogens to worry about, another cancer-causing concern.
Carcinogens are caused by the fat in meat dripping down onto hot charcoal or gas burners and burning to a crisp, running through a rapid chemical transformation, and rising back into your food in the process.
Since it’s best to use fatty cuts of meat on the grill, this can be a problem.
Carcinogens are defined as being a substance that causes cancer in any actual living tissue.
Carcinogens can’t affect anything that’s not organically alive, but since it can affect us, it causes cancer cells in your body.
Whether you’re breathing them in or ingesting them, you’re putting a cancer-causing substance in your body willingly.
There are two primary types of carcinogens;
HCAs, also known as heterocyclic amines, are chemicals that you get from muscle meat.
Primarily red meat (as it’s not very present in poultry).
You’re going to run into it a lot during grilling, which is where the primary health concern comes from.
When the fat drips out of meat and hits a hot surface, namely the flames of your gas grill or your charcoals, it rapidly changes its chemical composition and leaves HCAs.
These rise in the soot particles in your smoke, though it’s not directly the soot particles that we’re talking about (those are PAHs).
These cling back to your food, and you ingest them.
It’s the fat in meat, which would normally be okay, but the HCAs that are naturally created are basically isolated, so there’s nothing left to block them.
It’s why you get that golden, crispy color on the outside of the meat.
They’re unavoidable; you even get them when you pan to fry food on the stove.
PAHs are also relative to the fats that drip from your meats, but they also rely on the charcoal smoke and soot.
In fact, when soot is created, it’s the rapid molecular decomposition of organic life or materials, such as wood, transforming into something else entirely. It also relies on moisture.
In a sense, if you were burning a moist piece of wood that didn’t have time to cure, it’s going to burn extremely hot and release a lot of black smoke, which carries soot particles with it.
The soot particles will stick to surfaces, such as the underside of your food and your lid, and make it hazardous to eat your grilled foods.
PAHs are found in the DNA-damaging attributes of carcinogens, specifically from grilling, and the negative impact that they have on your body.
By ingesting enough carcinogens, your DNA can permanently change with no sign of it returning to its former state.
Nutritional Facts Regarding Grilled Foods
Grilled food contains more PAHs from soot buildup, and HCAs from fat dripping onto the bottom of the pan, so it’s not off to a good start.
On average, there are 25 different HCAs on your food when you grill it, but there will only be about 17 HCA types when you pan fry it indoors instead.
However, we can’t ignore that when you grill food, you’re reducing almost all the fat out of it.
While we can go toe-to-toe about the importance of fat in your food, it suffices to say that we don’t have a shortage of fat-filled food in this country.
It’s good to turn fattier meat into lean meat for the sake of your health, and grilled foods do offer that.
Grilled Foods Hold Onto More Vitamins Than Smokers
When you grill food, it actually helps to lock in many of the nutrients in meat and vegetables, through the fibers.
You’re creating a heat shield on the outside that isn’t allowing these vitamins to actually seep out through the fiber ends of the food.
Now, I’m still not saying that grilling is healthy, I’m just saying that if you’re asking yourself if you want to smoke or grill your food today, grilling is the better option.
With smoking, you’re just introducing your food to more carcinogens through soot and smoke than anything else.
Yes, it can taste more tender because of how slowly it cooks, but it’s also devoid of most of the critical nutrients and vitamins that we’re supposed to get from those foods.
At the end of the day, grilled meats are still chock full of protein, and grilled vegetables hold onto more of their minerals, which can often be lost when you steam them.
How to Grill as Healthy as Possible: 5 Key Tips
Okay, so here’s the deal—grilling is not that healthy, no matter how you spin it.
We can’t completely remove the negative attributes associated with it, but what we can do is mitigate how much they affect us.
There are a few methods at play that we can utilize to enjoy grilled foods with the least impact on our health.
Clean the Soot From Your Grill After Every Use
You close the lid on your grill to let the heat circulate and continue to cook your food, and it works to save fuel because you’re maintaining the temperature just by closing the lid.
It works, but if your lid already had a thick layer of soot on it, you’re just circulating that through the air when the heat hits it.
Then it circulates and hits your food, sticks to it, and it’s like adding a sprinkle of cancer-causing seasoning straight on your food. Keep your grill clean, every single time.
Even if all you do before you start cooking is to use your wire brush to chip away debris, and a paper towel to wipe away the soot on the inside of the lid, it’s going to do you a favor.
There’s also just an old charred flavor that you always get when the grill hasn’t been cleaned, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It emulates the taste of burnt chicken.
Use a Food Guard All the Time
Food guards are basically just heavy-duty aluminum foil squares that you jam under your food while it cooks on the grill.
The direct heat hits the food guard, then the indirect heat caused by this exchange cooks the food.
The fat doesn’t drip down and hit the heat source, so it doesn’t return as a harmful HCA.
On top of that, if you’re grilling with the top down, it reduces the amount of PAHs that are making direct contact with the underside of your food.
It prevents your food from drying out and charring because if you’re using a marinade or sauce, it’s not going to dry out as quickly.
That means the meat doesn’t dry out, and you kill two birds with one stone: better taste, better health.
Dampen the Flames
Less direct contact with the direct heat means less fat burning and caramelizing to your food.
It’s hard to write this and not immediately go outside and turn on the charcoal grill to make some pork chops (scratch that, I’m going to go get it started, then come back).
Some of the most tantalizing things about our grilled foods are technically the worst for us.
Dampening the flames can help you reduce that direct contact, but you have to be careful.
In a charcoal grill, you can spray a bit of water on the fire with a mist spray bottle to tone it down a bit, but you can’t exactly do that with a pellet grill or gas burner grill.
For those, “dampening the flames” just means limited the amount of oxygen that enters the chamber.
You turn your combustion fan low, or for gas, you just turn it down a bit without actually killing the flame altogether.
This keeps a lot of the residual heat in the chamber but doesn’t have a direct flame constantly changing the chemical makeup of your food.
Try a Pellet Grill
I’m not saying that pellet grills are good when it comes to health, but they’re still better than just about every other type of grill.
They feature drip pans, much like you would expect with a griddle, and it catches all the falling fat and puts it in one container.
That means no HCAs from meat hitting a direct heat source, and then coming back up.
You do have to keep an eye on this and the temperature to ensure a grease fire doesn’t happen, but if you can effectively sap the fat out of food and let it collect in this pan, then it’s going to do you a world of good where health is concerned.
Since pellets generally burn at a lower temperature than charcoal, you’re also introducing fewer soot particles into your food.
Some pellet grills even have filtered nets in the bottom to catch some of the soot before it rises to the top.
Use Charcoal With No Additives
Ever seen bags of charcoal briquettes that claim to light faster and burn longer?
That’s because there’s a ton of accelerants in the middle of them, and it’s good to light a fast fire, but all that stuff raises up into your food and cakes to its surface.
Most brands (though Kingsford comes to mind first) use sodium nitrate as the chemical that really ignites these briquettes, and sodium nitrate is probably one of the worst things to eventually have all over your food.
It not only damages your blood vessels, but it might increase your risk for heart disease, as well as diabetes.
It sounds like an unnecessary issue to take on just because you don’t want to wait.
On top of that, these processed charcoals also use sawdust and starch, which aren’t inherently bad, but it still ends up on your food all the same.
Because all these additives are used, briquettes are very processed, unlike lump charcoal which can “burn clean.”
I put that in quotation marks because either way, it’s still carbon clinging to your food, but it’s just that: carbon, nothing else, no additional chemicals.
Briquettes are often seen as your easiest way to light a fire, but the easy way is also rarely the best way to do something.
If you can buy charcoal with no additives instead of whatever is in a season that’s being marketed to you, you’ll be better off for it.
How Long to Grill Your Food
Until it’s done.
No more, no less.
The longer you leave the steak on the grill after it’s been browned, the more carcinogens are created.
Find the right cooking times for whatever dish it is that you’re making, and stick to it like it’s the gospel.
Once you grill food and get those char marks on the outside, you’ve effectively cooked away all the moisture from that area.
It’s okay that this happened, but then you’re drying out that same section over and over again, creating carcinogens purely by PAH buildup from soot.
Take the time to prepare your food.
Marinade it well, ensure it’s not dry or on its way out before it even hits the grill.
When you start with moist food that’s been prepared well, you’re reducing the risk of drying it out and creating additional carcinogens.
We know that carcinogens in meat can simply occur from them being overcooked, and how do we overcook meat?
Drying the heck out of it.
You can cook a steak on the grill in record time and still have the inside be pink, it’s just all about the way you prepare it before it goes on.
Most foods you cook on the stove, whether they’re vegetables or poultry, seafood or red meat, should all be marinated at some point.
In our guide on how to grill, which comes with 30 epic recipes, most of the preparation instructions advise you to use brines and marinades for everything you cook, even eggplant.
The Importance of Using Proper Grilling Utensils
Using the right tools can make a big difference in your grilling and cooking experience!
Ever had a pair of budget-friendly tongs that just don’t even grip the food the right way?
It’s a total pain in the behind, and then you’re rubbing the food all over the soot-coated grate, and ingesting more soot and carcinogens as a result.
Have you given much thought to your grilling fork?
Every time you pierce the meat with it, the fat drips down and turns into carcinogens when it hits the bottom.
Not only that, but it dries the food out.
In short, when you have the right utensils for the job, ones that are built tough and will handle whatever you throw at them, you’re going to make fewer mistakes while grilling.
Your serrated-edge spatula should be sharp enough to not mash food in between the grates, and your glaze brush should work well enough to not drip a ton of glaze into the fire below and make matters worse.
Be careful while cooking to avoid health issues.
It’s Up to You to Choose
Some of this information might come as a surprise, some of it might bum you out, but for me, it’s not going to stop the way that I grill.
I’m just aware of what it’s doing now.
I will still use food shields when it’s appropriate, and I’ll still roast chicken over an open flame because I like the way it tastes a whole lot better.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle helps your body naturally fight back against carcinogens, and utilizing some of these healthy eating methods that I’ve discussed here should also be a big help.