Perryman Nutrition Column: Grilling Health Concerns Can be Minimized

By Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D.

Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Colorado State University

Cooperative Extension Specialist

Spring is here, summer is around the corner, and that equates to backyard barbeque grilling season. Not only is grilling fun and a fast way to cook, but it’s also considered to be healthy because it lets the fat drip away from the food.

Unfortunately, there is now also a word of caution about grilling, one of America’s favorite pastimes. How can it be that something you thought was so good-for-you now isn’t?

Research shows that grilling isn’t as healthy as we once thought it was. High temperature cooking methods, including grilling, have been found to accelerate aging, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and certain cancers. This news is especially critical for older adults or those already diagnosed with serious health conditions.

This grilling hazard to your health is the result of toxins that are produced and absorbed into the body.  These chemical compounds that form during dry-heat cooking methods accumulate and increase inflammation which can damage body tissue.  

According to Helen Vlassara, a professor of medicine and geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, are formed during high temperature cooking such as grilling, frying and flame-broiling of meat.  

Previously it was thought that AGEs were produced solely by our own bodies. Research performed by the Mount Sinai group showed that 10 percent of AGEs in food are absorbed by the body and remain in various tissues for a long time.  

AGEs form during the browning of food, primarily when high-protein, high-fat foods are exposed to high temperatures. AGEs are created when sugar attaches to either protein or fat in dry heat at high temperatures. Think of it as what happens when you brown food giving it that attractive appearance, tantalizing aroma and desirable taste.

Exposure to dry heat produces more AGEs than moist heat cooking methods when liquid is added, such as steaming or stewing. For example, a chicken breast broiled for 15 minutes contains more than five times as many AGEs as the same food boiled for one hour.

Mount Sinai research determined that it is possible to limit AGEs in your diet by a significant amount if you’re willing to vary the cooking time and temperature of animal protein foods. There is also some evidence that marinating meat before grilling it might lower the amount of AGEs produced.   

Here are some ways to minimize your exposure to AGEs:

–     Eat more raw or steamed fruits and vegetables and eat meat less often.

–     Also emphasize whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice and whole grain pasta over meat when making meal choices.

–     Eat fewer fatty foods, especially fatty meat prepared at high temperatures by broiling, grilling or deep-frying.

–     Trim visible fat from meat before cooking at high temperatures.

–     Marinate meat in acidic liquids such as vinegar or lemon juice.

–     When cooking meat on a rack over the grill, raise the rack to the highest position away from the heat.

–     Lower the flame to low on a gas grill.

–     Cook food to the side of the heat source rather than directly over it.

–     Put out flames that may flare from fat and juices dripping onto the heat source.

–     Pre-cook foods by boiling or microwaving them before cooking at high temperatures.

–     After cooking cut off any portions of food that were charred.

–     Use moist-heat cooking methods more often including steaming, boiling stewing, braising or use a crock pot.

–     Cook with less fat.

–     Eat fewer processed foods because these foods may have been exposed to high temperatures to lengthen their shelf life.

What’s the answer to this dilemma?  

In my opinion you certainly don’t have to stop grilling; you do gain some healthful advantages and the flavor of grilled food cannot be duplicated by cooking methods. However, you may want to consider grilling less often and follow the above safety precautions to lessen your exposure to AGEs.  

By making a few simple adjustments you can still enjoy your favorite warm weather backyard pastime.